In adulthood people will spend any amount of money, seek any therapy, and commit any act just to prove their parents were right. The pursuit to become what parents tell us we are is indelible on our lives.

You have to wonder with someone’s passing — especially someone who has whittled at the wood our society is made from — whose instructions that person was following.

Such is the case of North Carolina’s former Sen. Jesse Helms, who passed away at 86 on the Forth of July.

What kind of a world was he trying to conserve? What kind of a life was he after? And why does it matter to forgive but not forget?

Jesse Helms, a newspaper and television commentator, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. It happened just after the crucial civil-rights legislation passed during the Lyndon Johnson administration and after the first Richard Nixon term. Many in the nation entered into a dark reactionary period, as Nixon appealed to the "silent majority" and invited disaffected Democrats to cross over to the Republican Party.

A national political vacuum formed that harbored a shared mutual disgust with a youthful anti-draft, anti-Vietnam War movement. The old ploy of using race and ethnicity as the basis for political divide-and-conquer was becoming an illegitimate basis for inequality among the people of the United States.

In that space, Helms became the symbol of reactionaries for the next 30 years. Even standing alone, he opposed liberals, he was a homophobe, pro-gun, pro-death penalty , anti-abortion, old-style anti-communist isolationist.

In 1993, Helms said, "I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that," when President Bill Clinton sought to appoint an openly homosexual as assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "If you want to call me a bigot, fine," he said in a newspaper interview.

He was skeptical of international cooperation and was for unilateral sanctions against Iran and Cuba. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he refused to ratify important international accords like the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. He used his Senate position to block the nomination of blacks to the courts and to ambassadorial positions.

Upon Helms’ retirement in 2001, Washington Post columnist David Broder said, "What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retired."

Although most obituaries about Helms will not be so truthful, sanitized words will be used to paint in pastels what was splotched on the nation.

Helms never won his election campaigns to the Senate by wide majorities. His 1972 victory, for instance, came after he switched from the Democratic to Republican Party. In 1984 he defeated then-Gov. Jim Hunt in what was then the costliest Senate race on record.

In 1990 Helms defeated black former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt using a commercial showing a white fist crumbling up a job application with the words underneath: "You needed that job but they had to give it to a minority." In 1996 he defeated Gantt again.

But those times are not for today and certainly not about the future. In fact, the old U.S. black-and-white, Old Dixie-values that brought characters like Helms onto the scene are rapidly passing, too.

It mainly can’t happen the same way again because from 1990 to 2006, the Latino population alone in North Carolina grew by 679 percent to 600,000 residents. New populations bring with them other histories and worldviews that take in other considerations. Old regional obsessions become anachronisms and just fade away, never to be resolved.

While elected officials are never mirror images of the communities they come from, one has to ponder as a historical question what kind of a community spawns leaders with such little vision for such a big nation for such a long time.


Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He is author of "The Rise of Hispanic Political Power." E-mail joseisla3(at)

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