In 1977, James Abourezk (D-SD) had just returned from Cuba. He and his fellow South Dakota Solon, George McGovern, had sought to use basketball diplomacy. The University of South Dakota’s team played Cuba’s national team. President Carter had supported the effort since it coincided with his own initiative to gradually restore relations with Cuba. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) tried to stop this process.
On the Senate floor, beside the presiding officer’s desk, Abourezk beseeched Helms to lighten up. "You ought go and see for yourself what’s going on down there," Abourezk said.
"You oughta go to Chile and see what’s going on down there," Helms replied. His reference reminded Abourezk of a conversation he’d had recently with Helms’ soul mate, Senator James Eastland (R-MS).
"I told Pinochet he oughta hang all the Communists and put the socialists in jail," Eastland smirked. "And Pinochet told me ‘that’s exactly what I’m doing.’"
"Helms was a mean son of a bitch," Abourezk offered as his obituary comment. "The Senate was a lot more collegial before he arrived."
Helms was the quintessential Cold War, bible-thumping Senator and his conversation with Abourezk was so Twentieth Century. In case anyone failed to grasp his sentiment on Cuba, in the mid 1990s Helms sponsored the Helms-Burton Bill tightening and codifying the embargo. "Let me be clear," Helms pronounced. "Whether Castro leaves Cuba in a vertical or horizontal position is up to him and the Cuban people. But he must — and will — leave Cuba."
Helms assumed horizontal posture before Castro, who remains in Cuba. But Helms’ decades of public and private utterances did demonstrate George Carlin’s insight: "Bullshit is the glue that binds this nation."
Carlin (71) and Helms (86) — polar opposites of U.S. culture — died within weeks of each other. Carlin taught critical thinking through stand-up comedy. Helms represented unquestioned authority — of the past. Lest anyone think Helms was always dour and serious about his love for all things reactionary, those who knew him told stories of his inventive sense of humor. This included the "good old boys" sense of humor.
In 1993, shortly after he made an impassioned speech about the virtues of flying the Confederate flag, Helms shared the Senate elevator with then Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) and his buddy and still Senator, Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah).
"Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry," he chortled to the ever agreeable — to reaction — Hatch. "I’m going to sing Dixie until she cries." He then sang it. Moseley Braun retorted, "Just the sound of you singing is enough to make me cry." (Time, 8/16/93)
Helms built his right wing reputation on combining hatred for communism with contempt for integration. In 1983, Helms attacked the bill establishing Martin Luther King Day. King, he charged, had close communist advisers (he actually named two of them) and he was well known for his promiscuity.
The die hard Dixiecrats understood Helms’ illusions and had not forgotten that twenty years before during the early civil rights protests, Helms, then a radio and TV commentator, had declared that "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)
Helms’ combined his pet hates into another "joke," by referring to the reputedly liberal University of North Carolina (UNC) as the "University of Negroes and Communists." (Charleston Gazette, 9/15/95)
He included the Hispanic population in his colored-based aesthetics. "All Latins are volatile people," Helms declared on a less than totally friendly visit to Mexico in 1986. "Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction."
Helms combined acidity for people of less than white hue and those of the liberal persuasion with a sense of nostalgia for the banalities of his youth. In a 1956 newspaper column he wrote: "I shall always remember the shady streets, the quiet Sundays, the cotton wagons, the Fourth of July parades, the New Year’s Eve firecrackers. I shall never forget the stream of school kids marching uptown to place flowers on the Courthouse Square monument on Confederate Memorial Day."
Helms, a close ally of right wing Christian preachers, accused gays and lesbians for causing "the proliferation of AIDS." He sneered that "there’s nothing gay about them." In 1993, Clinton appointed Roberta Achtenberg Assistant Secretary for Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Helms called her unqualified and tried to block her confirmation "because she’s a damn lesbian."
Why did he get so vitriolic? Was Helms, like so many of his political ilk, really a closet queen? In 1974, a Helms staffer ushered me past some blue haired ladies into a room full of aides, a couple of them straight and others down-right flamers. Imagine my surprise when Helms claimed that the "New York Times and The Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals. Just about every person down there is a homosexual or lesbian."
As part of his anti-gay, anti-black and all other colors, anti-liberal and pro gun credo, Helms also belonged to the "Proud to be an American" club, the association of people whose bumpers bear the sticker: "Proud To Be an American."
I never shared that sentiment; nor pride in being Jewish or coming from New York. George Carlin analyzed such statements of pride as bullshit. "Pride should be reserved for your achievements, not accidents of birth like being American or Irish or Italian."
God Bless America, repeated Helms and thousands of other politicians. "Is that a request, a demand a suggestion," asked Carlin? "Imagine, God singles out one country for his blessings because — well you go figure."
Carlin mocked the religious pap that Helms and the vast Christian fundamentalist right wing accept as God given. "Religion even requires people to swear on the Bible when they testify in court," explained Carlin. "Why should swearing to God on the Bible mean you’re telling the truth? As kids, every time we wanted to disguise a whopping lie, we’d say ‘I swear on the Bible’ or I swear on my mother’s tits.’ Swearing on the Bible never induced a cop to tell the truth on the witness stand. They lie routinely when they take the stand just to insure a conviction. The Bible is America’s favorite theatrical prop."
Indeed, Carlin questioned everything, analyzed words, and splintered customs with knife-like logic. "You go to a baseball, football or basketball game and they begin with the Star Spangled banner. And all the men — not the women — have to remove their hats. What’s the relationship between a hat and patriotism? Why not take off your pants to show you love this country?"
Helms would have thrown Carlin in jail for using "dirty words." How can a word be dirty, asked the late Lenny Bruce? "You take a word and rub dirt on it?" Carlin enjoyed playing with words and phrases that you can’t say on television. "You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your…"
For Helms, such language insulted God. For Carlin, "using God is the last refuge of a man who has no argument. If God was looking out for us he would make sure all of us had food and houses. As a kid I was taught that disobeying God would mean I’d burn in the hottest of Hell, endure the most horrible pain. God routinely punished us by causing tornadoes, hurricanes and such. He gave the disobedient cancer and other hideous ailments. But don’t worry. God loves you."
And for the gun and God loving, Carlin’s question had particular significance. "If God was looking out for you would He have given you a gun to kill your girl friend?"
I know Carlin isn’t in Heaven looking down and smiling at those who remember him fondly. If there was such a place "up there," he would have better things to do. Unfortunately, Jesse probably isn’t "down there" either.
But imagine the Devil giving the important Jesse three choices. One option he offers would be to join Reagan swimming in boiling water, but not able to reach the shore. Helms refuses. Next, he sees Nixon breaking an interminable pile of rocks. Nope!
For his third option, the Devil opens a door and Helms sees Clinton seated, facing him with Monica on her knees in front of the former President and — well, doing her thing. The pious Helms grimaces, but finally chooses this as the least horrible option. The Devil then says: "Okay, Monica, you can go now."
Saul Landau once wrote plays for the San Francisco Mime Troupe.