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Friday February 3rd

To Fight the Future: How Our Secret Weapon Backfired

When he finishes his Senate term in 2002, he will return home to a state where technology is big business, the politics are mostly Republican and the population is increasingly Hispanic.

In those 28 years in between, North Carolina has changed considerably, even as Helms has remained stubbornly the same. That, his supporters say, is the key to his voter appeal. Helms never allowed himself to fall into the political slipstream, never budged from his rock-solid conservatism.

But if the strength of Helms' convictions is endearing to some, it made him a villain to others. Liberals cringe whenever they hear him denounce affirmative action, abortion rights or any other cause that contravened his world view. His opponents decry his campaign tactics as fear-mongering. Civil rights groups call him sexist, racist and homophobic. Helms shrugged it all off -- he is as impervious to criticism as he is to the changing political climate.

For a statesman of such visibility and experience, Helms authored relatively few pieces of legislation. As the chair of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms is better known for blocking opponents' bills and sabotaging the nominations of people with whom he disagreed. "Senator No," as he came to be known, was feared by those who were subjected to his often withering interrogations on the Senate floor.

Yet in person, Helms is never less than cordial, with an avuncular persona that charms his fans and confuses his critics. He has always been available to his constituents, and his office is incredibly responsive to their needs.

This disjunction, this inability to reconcile the kindly old man with the Scourge of the Senate, leads inexorably to a single question: Who is the real Jesse?

That is the question that presents itself as North Carolina's most revered and reviled political figure shuffles out of the limelight. That is the question that has confounded countless reporters. That is the question that is perhaps too disturbing to consider, because its answer might reveal things about ourselves that we'd rather not know.

To be certain, Helms' election paralleled the ascendency of the Republican Party in North Carolina. As American politics emerged from the crucible of the 1960s, Helms followed many other disillusioned Democrats to the other side of the aisle. And as the religious right began to slowly co-opt the party of Lincoln in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Helms was its poster child.

Yet in recent years, Helms has seemed more out of sync than ever. His 1990 campaign against Harvey Gantt was an ugly affair remembered most for its infamous ad in which a pair of white hands crumpled an application letter while a voiceover intoned "You were the best qualified for that job, but they had to give it to a minority."

Helms also stepped up his rhetoric against homosexuals even as the country became more tolerant of these lifestyles. He once told a mother whose son died of AIDS that her child had played "Russian roulette" with his sexuality. He vehemently opposed federal funding to artists who dealt with homosexual themes.

And in foreign policy, Helms nearly derailed an international weapons treaty ratified by virtually every other democratic nation, tried to slash aid to Third World nations and thwarted Bill Clinton's attempt to appoint Mass. Gov. William Weld -- a fellow Republican -- as ambassador to Mexico.

Helms is a political troglodyte, a late-Cretaceous throwback whose ideas remain rooted in the Dixiecrat South of the 1950s rather than the multicultural state he represents today.

What's most troubling, however, is that Helms doesn't even seem to realize how truly out of time he is. Not once has he expressed remorse for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress," said Helms at the time). Not once has he tempered his criticism of homosexuals with the least bit of compassion. Not once has he been able to look beyond his myopic, paranoiac vision of the world.

So why, then, have we kept him in office all these years? What does that say about us?

I choose not to believe that most North Carolinians are spiteful ignoramuses with their heads stuck in the sand, oblivious to the world around them. Rather, I believe that the changing character of our state has made us nervous.

As demographics shift, industries die and regional differences become more indistinct, we look to the past for solace. And what better totem of our past than Jesse?

He was our bulwark against these agents of change, our secret weapon against the future. But the weapon backfired, and for nearly 30 years North Carolina has watched its collective sins acted on the political stage.

Now that Helms is leaving, perhaps we can take the time to think about where we want to go next. Perhaps it's time we stopped fighting the future and joined it.

Mark Slagle can be reached at slagle@email.unc.edu.

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