Media Blog

Covering Jesse Helms

The Associated Press’s summary of Jesse Helms, written by longtime congressional correspondent Larry Margasak, ought to be put into the Newseum as an example of what is wrong with political journalism in America.

Start with the lead:

WASHINGTON (AP) — “Compromise, hell!” Jesse Helms screamed in a 1959 editorial that captured what would become the legacy of his Senate career and his place in the conservative movement.

Setting aside the question of whether it is possible to “scream” in print and, if so, whether Helms was guilty of same, this quote, in this context, reads like a call to vulgar partisanship. But in context it’s something quite different:

“Compromise, hell! That’s what has happened to us all down the line — and that’s the very cause of our woes. If freedom is right and tyranny is wrong, why should those who believe in freedom treat it as if it were a roll of bologna to be bartered a slice at a time?”

This isn’t a call to Tom DeLay-style hardline partisanship — and if it were, it would be worth noting that this was written in 1959, back when Helms was still a Democrat and working on Democrats’ campaigns. But this is in fact a declaration of a very different kind, of a piece with Goldwater’s famous “”Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater was lambasted for that sentence, which is in fact a paraphrase of Cicero, but as rhetoric it is inferior to Helms’s clever “roll of bologna to be bartered a slice at a time” bit. The AP’s Margasak would have done well to include the longer version of the quote, but that doesn’t fit it with his narrative template, i.e. that Helms was a bomb-throwing trog.
On the subject of Helm’s life before the Senate, you’d be hard pressed to take away from Margasak’s piece anything about Helms’s career as a Democratic operative or the role of the Democratic party in trying to block the civil rights acts that were passed, after all, on Republican support. Instead, we get this:

No to civil rights. No to abortion. No to communism. No to the United Nations. No to gay rights. No to arts funding with nakedness. No to school busing. No to the U.S. giving up the Panama Canal. No to a nuclear arms reduction treaty called Salt II.

One of these things is not like the others, no? Helms wasn’t even in the Senate until 1973, after the major civil rights legislation had been passed. It is true that Helms worked against those bills — as a supporter of Democrats such as Beverly Lake. On the issues where Helms actually had a Senate vote — the NEA, the abortion, school busing, &c. – Helms’s record is pretty good. But Helms was a conservative and a Southerner, so it is essential that he be tarred as an unreconstructed racist. So likewise, when Margasak writes …

A contemporary in the Senate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, preceded Helms as the standard-bearer for civil rights opponents. But when Thurmond was threatened with political extinction — winning only 56 percent of the vote in 1978 — he began moderating his views and won 67 and 64 percent of the vote in the next two elections.

… the comparison is flawed, if not grotesque. Helms and Thurmond were contemporaries in that their careers overlapped, but Thurmond had been in the Senate for decades before Helms ever held office, and Thurmond had — again, let’s point it out, since the AP surely won’t, as a Democrat — staged the longest filibuster in Senate history to block the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which was proposed by a Republican president, Eisenhower, and passed on Republican support in Congress. How a reporter can write about Helms and Thurmond and the civil rights era without at least noting the institutional hostility of the Democratic party toward these bills is mysterious. (Someday, somebody will figure out that Republicans have been responsible for the most important civil rights actions, starting with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Klan Act, the 1957 and 1960 acts, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. But this isn’t the place for that discussion.) And why isn’t Helm’s precessor as alleged ”standard-bearer for civil rights opponents” Sen. Robert K. Byrd, a Democrat who is still in the Senate and who was launched into his political career by serving as Exhalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan? Report, hell!
Buried down in the story we get an actual item of interest, from Larry Sabato:

Helms “was happily willing to lose,” Sabato said. “He was willing to lose gloriously rather than abandon his views and principles.”

But the chances of the AP leading with this perspective – that Helms was a politician of the sort willing to risk his career for his principles — are pretty slim.

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