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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Meet The New Boss...

by dday

Matt Yglesias has noticed that the conservative establishment is not nearly as ashamed of the legacy of Jesse Helms as he thinks they ought to be. It does seem pretty jarring, but this is of course a major difference between the parties - literally nothing that conservatives do on ideological grounds can get them excommunicated from the party, while outspoken liberals are routinely shunted to the margins just for being outspoken, and for sins incomparable to Helms'. This has been happening for years. Conservatives will only drop you if you hurt the movement; then they'll tell everyone that you were never a conservative to begin with (e.g. George W. Bush).

The problem here is that I think Americans of all political stripes can agree that Helms was an avowed racist. Sure, my NPR report on his passing yesterday carefully explained that he "used race effectively" in his election campaigns, but I'm not sure there's any difference. While racism is still a fact of American life, it has been pushed underground, not to be talked about in polite society, so that everyone can delude themselves that these issues are no longer germane and that we're all one big happy melting pot.

Helms didn't do that, and neither did his advisors. And one of them now holds a high position in the John McCain campaign.

1984: Black Advised Helms on Senate Re-Election Bid and Bragged About Victory. The Washington Post reported, “‘It’s a tremendous victory for conservatives,’ Helms’ strategist Charles Black said. ‘It enhances his clout and influence in the Senate in the eyes of the press and his colleagues. He’ll be even more effective than he has been.’” [Washington Post, 11/8/84, emphasis added]

Black and Helms Used “Racist Appeals” to Win. Politics reporter Bill Peterson wrote in The Washington Post, “Lesson: A vicious new electronic form of negative politics has evolved and matured. And it is frightening. It is a politics of distortion, half truths and character assassination. Ends are used to justify means. Truth often takes a back seat. … Helms and the National Congressional Club, a political action committee run by his allies, had used negative advertising long before the Senate race began. … Racial epithets and standing in school doors is no longer fashionable, but 1984 proved that the ugly politics of race are alive and well. Helms is their master. A case in point was the pivotal event of the campaign: Helms’ filibuster against a bill making the birthday of the late Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday. … Helms campaign literature sounded a drumbeat of warnings about black voter-registration drives. His campaign newspaper featured photographs of Hunt [his opponent] with Jesse L. Jackson and headlines like ‘Black Voter Registration Rises Sharply’ and ‘Hunt Urges More Minority Registration.’ Helms shamelessly mined the race issue.” [Peterson, Washington Post, 11/18/84, emphasis added]

1990: Black Advised Jesse Helms. As He Ran Controversial “Hands” Ad Against Black Candidate. Newsday reported that Helms, “through a series of blistering advertisements unleashed just days before, had beckoned the long-simmering issue of race to the surface of this senatorial contest. In doing so, Helms had hurled the campaign into its most bitter and acrimonious phase to date, namely by labeling his opponent, falsely, an advocate of racial job quotas and accusing him of conducting a ‘secret campaign’ in the black community. … On the television commercial, the camera zones in on a white man’s hands, crumpling what apparently is a job rejection letter. The announcer then intones: ‘You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is,’ the message continues. ‘Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications.’” Black, an adviser to the campaign and a consultant for the Congressional Club — Helms’s political machine — insisted the race would come down to turnout: “‘What it’s going to come down to is turnout,’ said Charles Black, chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Helms adviser. ‘It’s, no question, the biggest challenge at this point.’” [Newsday, 11/4/90]

Black Defended “Hands Ad.” Black defended Helms’s “Hands” television ad, which featured white hands crumpling a job rejection letter and linking Helms’s black opponent to racial job quotas. Asked about the ad on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Black said, “Well there is nothing racial about the campaign.” When asked if there was anything improper about the ad, Black said, “Of course not.” Another guest on the show, DNC Chairman Ron Brown, pressed Black again, saying, “You are a principal adviser of Jesse Helms. Would you advise him to run that kind of ad, Charlie? Do you approve of that ad, Charlie?” Black responded, “I advised Jesse Helms to do what he’s always done.” [MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, 11/5/90]

This is not to say that McCain is a racist (though voting against the King holiday at the age of 46 doesn't exactly speak well of him) but that there's an essential continuity between this Republican candidate and those of the past. They have a new campaign staff in what Krugman is calling the battle for Rove's third term. If they thought it would help they'd go to a medium and summon up the ghost of Lee Atwater. The tactics are just as harmful and noxious, playing to fears. And the common thread is that they know how to play the press to maximum advantage. They loved Jesse Helms then as now because he "did what he's always done" and it worked. In a way Barack Obama is an imperfect foil for these types of expected attacks - they'd rather be far more indirect than come out and say "do you want this man in the White House?" But make no mistake - this is the legacy. And it's one that's unbroken.

P.S. Hilzoy has the definitive Helms list, both of the conservative encomiums and his own words. He was a charmer.