The Old Carolinians

Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.

Illustration by Philip Burke

If you stick around Capitol Hill long enough, anything can happen. And during the past few weeks, it did. Sens. Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms–the villainous, superannuated Carolinians–became Statesmen.

Last month, the 94-year-old Thurmond was feted for breaking the Senate longevity record (41 years and 10 months, if you’re counting). There was an outpouring of bipartisan piffle, the gist of which was that Thurmond is an American miracle, a South Carolinian hero, a model for politicians everywhere. His career was much applauded. He won an election 18 years before Bill Clinton was born! He challenged Truman for the presidency! Why, he’s old enough to be Bob Dole’s father!

Jesse Helms, too, is now flirting with respectability. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he’s become the object of much veneration. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who dutifully traveled to North Carolina to kiss his ring, waxes fondly about her new friend Jesse. Republicans and Democrats commend Helms for his good sense, flexibility, and bipartisanship (?!). When he struck a deal last week to repay some but not all of the United States’ U.N. debts, senators on both sides hailed his compromise. Even his latest act of spite, the attempt to derail William Weld’s nomination as ambassador to Mexico, is being interpreted charitably by conservative pundits as a sign of Helms’ commitment to a tough anti-drug policy.

The rehabilitation of Strom and Jesse is Washington politesse of the worst sort, a twisted Inside-the-Beltway version of ancestor worship. Call it the Grand Old Man Theory: Anyone who’s served as long as Strom or Jesse has can’t be all bad. Here’s a reminder: Thurmond and Helms are all bad. They have done as much to despoil American politics as any two men living, and they’re an embarrassment to the Senate.

In 50 years of public office, Thurmond has compiled a perfect record: He has done nothing that can be called an achievement. His career is an unblemished half century of efforts to impede progress, inflame race relations, and squelch good government. So what has he done? Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on what is politely called a “states’ rights” platform or accurately called a “segregationist” platform. He conducted the longest filibuster in Senate history in a vain attempt to stop a civil-rights bill (one of many civil-rights laws he opposed). He concocted Richard Nixon’s 1968 “Southern Strategy”–the tacit appeal to white racism that became the blueprint for future Republican presidential candidates. (Thurmond, incidentally, was mentor to Lee Atwater, the nastiest political strategist in recent memory. Atwater had to die to get rehabilitated. Thurmond just had to get very old.)

Thurmond’s apologists insist that he has mellowed. And he has, sort of. He abandoned segregationism when South Carolina’s blacks became a powerful voting bloc, throwing his support behind the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, hiring black staffers, and recommending a black man for appointment as a federal judge. But his racial politics can scarcely be described as up-to-date. A few years ago, I interviewed him about a black ex-staffer who had won fame as a talk-show host. Thurmond told me that the staffer’s success showed what “those people” could do. This is considered great progress–when a politician advances from Neanderthal man to the Stone Age.

As a legislator, Thurmond has been a zero. He doesn’t have a significant bill to his name. He does, however, have other things to his name, such as the Strom Thurmond High School, Strom Thurmond Student Center, Strom Thurmond Federal Building, Strom Thurmond Auditorium, Strom Thurmond Educational Center, Strom Thurmond Dam, Strom Thurmond Lake, Strom Thurmond Highway, Strom Thurmond Soldier Service Center, etc. In short, Thurmond spent the first three-quarters of his political life as an ardent segregationist and pork-barreler, and the last quarter merely as a pork-barreler. Is that a record to honor?

There’s even less to admire about Helms. As a campaigner, Helms has contributed as much as any senator to the corruption of the election process. He pioneered the (ab)use of direct mail, sending inflammatory fund-raising letters to millions of conservatives. He’s notorious for massive campaign spending: He set a record in 1984 by spending $17 million to win re-election. Helms has perfected the stealth campaign: He relies almost exclusively on television ads, eschewing rallies, public appearances, press conferences, debates, and the other niceties of traditional politics. (In his 1990 campaign, for example, he would respond only to faxed questions.) He has been equally destructive as a legislator: A fervent anti-Communist, he championed right-wing despots across Latin America (including death-squad leaders). He was also the chief U.S. defender of South Africa’s apartheid regime. And his anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-NEA rhetoric has lowered standards for political civility.

These days, Helms’ allies are trying to present him as a moderate, accommodating figure, but that image won’t stick. Helms is an absolutist, and he doesn’t stop till he gets his way. He only knows the politics of the truncheon, a quality that’s tolerable in a backbencher but terrifying in a leader. Helms can barely stomach the democratic process. Last year, for example, he held up 30 ambassadorial nominations to force the administration to consider his State Department reform package. This spring, he attempted to prevent the Senate from voting on the Chemical Weapons Convention. And rather than persuade colleagues that Weld doesn’t deserve to be ambassador, Helms is trying to spike the nomination by not scheduling a confirmation hearing.

So why are Helms and Thurmond getting a free pass? Thurmond is so old that it’s considered bad form to criticize his sorry record or dredge up his racist past. (Or to comment on his current incompetence–it’s an open secret on the Hill that Thurmond has lost it. His staff shepherds him from meeting to meeting, writes his public statements, and cleans up after his many gaffes, such as his attempted pass at Sen. Patty Murray.) Helms benefits from a more curious phenomenon: the vagary of the news cycle. He’s been mean-spirited and vicious for so long that editors and reporters are tired of hearing about it. They need a new story about him. So, voilà !--Jesse Helms has matured into a diplomat.

Thurmond and Helms each won re-election in 1996, but this is likely to be the last term for both. Thurmond announced a few weeks ago that he won’t run again. Helms, who will be 81 when his fifth term ends, is increasingly frail. He too may retire. January 2003–that’s when we should celebrate Thurmond and Helms, because that’s when the Senate will finally be rid of both of them.