When Jesse Helms won his third U.S. Senate term in 1984, I concluded, after too many years as a Helms-watcher, that the mysterious romance between the senator and his fellow Tar Heels was too deep to fathom. I almost decided to quit the field and leave Helms-watching to others. Almost.
On a trip to North Carolina, where Helms is in the contest of his life, someone showed me a column by my friend and colleague James J. Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick bills the senator as one of the few "men of principle" he has known in public life. He asserts, still more astonishingly, that while Helms has been in the news "as a kind of archvillain determined to censor the work of artists," the impression is false. No one with Helms' journalistic background, he says, "could favor censorship as the word is generally understood."
Either Kilpatrick has found a new dictionary, or he has lapsed into unaccustomed innocence. He must have forgotten the Helms who, in his pre-Senate years as a television commentator, promoted a law to ban "known communists" as speakers on state-supported college campuses. It was a folly that nearly cost the University of North Carolina (a perennial Helms target) its accreditation before a federal court finally killed it.
The senator's recent noisy crusade for a scrubbed-up and heavily censored National Endowment for the Arts is more of the same. It is censorship by anyone's definition; and it has everything to do with his current re-election campaign.
In election years, Helms has a way of positioning himself as the white knight protecting good North Carolinians against the onslaught of Greenwich Village, Beverly Hills and San Francisco. Or some other menace of the decade. This year his target has been the homoerotic photographs of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, as in 1984 it was the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.
But Helms the censor of arts and letters has a history. As a TV pundit some 25 years ago, Helms one day caught wind of what he understood to be a plot to dirty the suggestible minds of college youth in Chapel Hill with smutty poetry. The mother of a UNC freshman had complained to Helms that in her daughter's composition class the instructor had assigned themes titled "To My Coy Mistress."
Some of the compositions had been read, to many blushes on fair faces, in class! Jesse staged an editorial tantrum, and some half-cocked university sub-administrator temporarily suspended the instructor from his duties.
Sober inquiry eventually established that the instructor had merely made imaginative, and perfectly decorous, use of one of the standard freshman syllabus poems, Andrew Marvel's great To His Coy Mistress. The poem indeed speaks of seduction, but it is about mortality: "time's winged chariot hurrying near."
The "Coy Mistress Affair," as it soon came to be called, is nearly forgotten. But its instigation was vintage Helms. It and other episodes belie Kilpatrick's suggestion that Helms is no censor. Repression is Helms' middle name. He has to be one of the prissiest politicians who ever drew breath.
Even with the usual diversion (Helms' ridiculous contention that his real foes in the Senate race this year are sexual deviates and pornographers), he is threatened by defeat by the ex-mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt. Gantt is a new and attractive face and Helms is aging and tired. It may be, also, that some gullible Helms voters are asking themselves, at long last, what in the way of tangible benefits his 18 years in the Senate have brought them.
North Carolina is hard hit by recession and a severe budget squeeze. Economic difficulty, as usual, has sharpened the bite of all the bad news, of which there has been an embarrassing plenty of late. North Carolinians have been forced to face their state's bottom standing in such indices as working wages, adult literacy, average SAT scores and infant mortality.
As to these problems, many of them old and deep-rooted, Helms has no record to stand on. As TV editorialist, as flack for the N.C. Bankers Association, and as senator, Helms has been consistently scornful of social programs. If his opponent Gantt is serious about anything, he will, if he wins, find it easy to improve on Helms' vacuous Senate record.
Of course, at what H.
L. Mencken called "boob-bumping," Helms is unsurpassed. But for boob-bumpers, the danger is always that one day the boobs will wake up to the game and see at last that the joke is on them.
Washington Post Writers Group