On his outstanding Prodigal Son CD, North Carolina folk and blugrass legend Mike Cross presents us with a high-stepping little ditty called “Bill is in His Grave.” Bill, it turns out, was a scoundrel of the first order, and he’d been recently deceased.
The narrator is asked to say a few words at the funeral, a task that proves daunting for a man who’d rather not speak ill of the dead.
He finally manages this:
If Heaven is pleased when sinners cease to sin
If the Devil is pleased when another soul comes in
If the Earth is glad to be rid of a knave
Then everybody’s happy ’cause Bill is in his grave.
This chorus sprang immediately to mind when I heard this past Friday that another scoundrel, former Senator Jesse Helms – a Tar Heel like both Mike Cross and myself – had departed the world that he worked so hard to corrupt. I hope Cross, who’s truly one of America’sÂ epic musical treasures, won’t mind my invocation of his song on this occasion.
LikeÂ his narrator, I was raised to either speak well of people or say nothing at all, and that edict goes double when the subject is freshly dead. On the other hand, I was also taught to live my life in accordance with particular moral principles and to honor the truth above all other things. Perhaps you have, by now, sensed a certain tension in my writing – this is why.
So let me speak plainly and be judged by the fairness of my eulogy, such as it is. I will not gravedance, but I will note that in recent days a lot of raging morons have had all kinds of praise for the late Sen. Helms, that bastion of conservative principles, that stalwart defender of tradition, that foundational champion of the Republican ascendancy, and so on. Hell no, I’m not linking to any of it – if you have a taste for horseshit go get your own shovel.
There are some facts about the Senator’s life and career, though, and we should not allow the protocols of death or the shameless pandering of Helms’ equally corrupt fellow travelers distract us from them. Take this bit, for instance:
As an aide to the 1950 Senate campaign of North Carolina Republican candidate Willis Smith, Helms reportedly helped create attack ads against Smith’s opponent, including one which read: “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races.” Another ad featured photographs Helms himself had doctored to illustrate the allegation that Graham’s wife had danced with a black man. (The News and Observer, 8/26/01; The New Republic, 6/19/95; The Observer, 5/5/96; Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms, by Ernest B. Furgurson, Norton, 1986)
How about this one:
“The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.” (WRAL-TV commentary, 1963) He also wrote, “Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced.” (New York Times, 2/8/81)
One of his most famous moments, of course, occurred during his re-election campaign against one such uppity Negro, Harvey Gantt. Much has been made of George Bush the Elder’s infamous Willie Horton/revolving prison door ad in the 1988 campaign, but it paled in comparison to Jesse’s “hands” spot.
Jesse Helms was an ignorant, bile-spewing hatemonger who left a greasy film on everything he touched. Yes Virginia, there are evil people in the world. There are those who make society a worse place simply by living in it, and when they manage to acquire power they can inflict damage on a scale so great that it may take generations to clean up.
As wonderful as it is that Jesse Helms will no longer be wreaking havoc on our culture, the sad fact is that there’s little time or cause to celebrate because his legacy lives on. He taught others that prejudice and hate are acceptable motivations for governance and his anti-intellectual progeny are ever manufacturing new and more appalling tools for the oppression of the innocent.
Fine – let’s all take a moment to toast the death of an evil human being – truly the world is a better place without Jesse Helms. But make it quick because we have to get back to work. Jesse’s mess isn’t going to clean itself up.