I thought I would take a little stroll down history lane for some on Daily Kos and write a diary about the late unlamented Republican Senator Jesse Helms of NC. While some look to George Wallace, Strom Thurmond ,and Richard Nixon as the architects of American racial politics, we should not forget the influence that Jesse Helms exerted on Republican politics and the issue of race relations. Helms success on winning political contests was a combination of understanding how the media worked and the gullibility of white swing voters.
Helms started out as a typical racist Southern Democrat. He was fervent segregationist, and he had a history of bare knuckle political brawling against Democrats who showed moderation on civil rights. One of his first political victims was U.S. Senator Frank Porter Graham. Appointed to the seat in 1949, Graham had to run for reelection in 1950 against two other opponents. Graham got 49% of the primary vote, while his nearest competitor, former Speaker of the NC House Willis Smith, received 41%. Smith was disinclined to challenge Graham with a runoff primary, but Helms led a campaign to convince Smith to continue his campaign. Helms helped Smith during his runoff campaign, and out of nowhere appeared a political flier with a doctored photo of Graham's white wife dancing with a black man. The caption on the flier said, "White People Wake Up!" Graham, of course, lost the runoff to Smith. Helms denied knowledge of the political flier, but those who knew Helms said if he did not produce the flier it had Helm's stamp of approval.
Later, during the 1960s and early 70s, Helms was a frequent commentator on Raleigh's WRAL TV. His diatribes on desegregation and a host of other liberal policies made him a well known figure in NC. After Strom Thurmond jumped shipped and became a Republican, Helms did the same and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972.
Helm's knew from his career in radio and TV that openly racist comments were not the way to win political office in the 1970s. The violence of Southern whites against blacks during the 1960s was caught on camera, and those who used racial slurs were associated with the worst aspects of white racism. In other words, it was no longer OK to call blacks the N word, at least by white politicians running for higher office. So Helms readily adapted the Southern Strategy for winning votes.
And Helm's was a master of this political strategy. Helms would gleefully oppose all the issues that pissed off racist whites - court ordered busing, welfare, crime, and affirmative action to name a few. You will notice how all those issues revolve around race or are perceived to benefit blacks at the expense of whites.
And if stressing policy issues that disgruntled white voters opposed wasn't enough of a signal that "I'm with you against the blacks," Helms would utilize a term for minorities and others that Southern white voters felt animosity toward: the bloc vote. Helms would lump civil rights organizations, labor unions, teachers, and liberals and anyone else not a conservative into the "bloc vote." Helms would always say that the bloc vote was against him or supporting legislation that was harmful to NC.
It was not subtle, but it worked.
Meanwhile, so called white swing voters would not pick up on Helm's racist policies. Besides, many of those NC swing voters probably didn't care much for what they considered wasteful government spending on welfare. Also, who wanted to have their kids bused clear across town to another school? Helms could use such arguments with the white swing voter on a number of issues, and it sure didn't sound racist to them.
Cynical? You bet. But white swing voters in NC at that time were primarily disaffected conservative Democrats who just didn't bother to switch their voter registration to Republican. And they had all the typical biases against blacks, but they were not about to go out and actively engage in overt acts of racism or racial violence. However, these same voters could not in good conscience vote for someone openly racist.
So we had Helms promoting policies that hurt the black community, but Helms never was caught on camera saying a racial slur. In fact, Helms was so disciplined at hiding his bigotry that he wasn't caught in private saying the N word when he was in office. Helms had a word that he employed for the N word: Freds.
A reporter from that liberal den of iniquity The Wall Street Journal reported Helm's affection for the word Freds. When a black constituent would write or call about some matter, Helm's would ask one of his staffers, "What does that Fred want?" There would be no "gotcha" moment for Jesse Helms on race.
Without some video evidence of Helm's using the N word, the media could never firmly conclude or assert that Helm's was a racist. The belief that you can't know what is in someone's mind or heart still rules in many quarters of the media. And it is a rule that is adopted by the low information swing voter.
So here we had Jesse Helms dancing on the racial divide line, but he never crossed it openly. When confronted by a African American candidate in 1990s, Helms stooped to two other tactics to win reelection. The first was to hire James Meredith and use him to attack the Democratic candidate, Harvey Gantt. How could Helms be a racist when he hired James Meredith?
And if that wasn't enough, Helms played the infamous "hands" commercial about affirmative action. For those too young, Helms showed some white applicant for a job being given a letter from a supposed employer rejecting the applicant. The hands are shown crumbling the letter and a voice over says that affirmative action was responsible for the rejection.
Helms won reelection. Oh, and he fired James Meredith immediately afterwards. Meredith claimed that it was a mutual parting of the ways, but no one with a brain believed it. Well, white swing voters believed it.
Anyway, Helms mastered the technique of being a racist politician without offending enough voters to pay a price at the ballot box. And to this day, NC Republicans still revere Helms and his tactics. It is a lesson many of the GOP have taken to heart.