|Jesse Helms Although few New Zealanders will have heard of him outside HIV/AIDS circles, I imagine that few LGBT Americans will mourn the passing of the late former US Republican Senator for North Carolina, Jesse Helms, who died at 86.
Helms never earned a degree from North Carolina's Wingate University, as he joined the Raleigh Times editorial staff before graduating. Initially, he worked as a sports reporter, before assisting a right-wing Democrat Senator's bid for re-election after launching an attack on African-American civil rights aspirations for an end to employment discrimination in 1950. After shifting to Raleigh's Capitol Broadcasting Corporation, he continuously attacked the civil rights movement, and African-American "crime rates" and "lack of responsibility." This proved popular in backward North Carolina, enabling him to be elected as a Raleigh City Councillor in 1957. After defecting to the Republican Party, Helms used his right-wing past to stand for the US Senate and got elected in 1972.
He became a strong ally of Ronald Reagan in the mid-seventies, and it was probably his endorsement of the previously faltering Republican presidential nominee that led to the former's upset presidential primary victory in that state, California, Texas and several others, against incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. From that start, Reagan went on to become Republican candidate in 1980, and became a two-term President (1980-1988).
As for Helms, he was a primary recipient of tobacco company support. Throughout his five US Senate terms, he attracted condemnation from US liberals for his foreign policy liaisons with such far right icons as El Salvador's death squad commander Roberto D' Aubuisson, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, and the Nicaraguan contras.
Perhaps most damningly for US LGBT communities, Helms was a rabid opponent of the federal funding of HIV/AIDS research and treatment, and he even tried to obstruct funding for the Ryan White Act in 1990 on that basis. Unfortunately, he was more effective in axeing federal funding for safe sex health promotion materials targeted at gay men under the Reagan administration. One wonders how many lives were lost due to that murderous omission.
As time went on, Helms developed multiple infirmities, and bone disorders, prostrate cancer and heart disease took their toll, leading to his retirement in 2003. After that, Random House published Here's Where I Stand (2005), in which the ailing right wing extremist compared abortion to the Nazi Holocaust and the 9/11 terrorist atrocity in New York. In 2006, it was reported he was suffering from dementia, and was moved into a nursing home, before his death on 5 July 2008.
Jesse Helms: Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir: New York: Random House: 2005.
William Link: Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism: New York; St Martins: 2008. Craig Young - 7th July 2008