UF professor re-evaluates political legacy of Jesse Helms in new book
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Jesse Helms has always been like coffee — people have either loved him or hated him.
Now, University of Florida history professor William Link hopes to offer a more complete, less polarized portrayal of the controversial right-wing politician. His new book is “Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism,” to be released Tuesday by St. Martin’s Press.
Helms, who spent 30 years as one of North Carolina’s U.S. senators, is mostly known for his enduring opposition to the civil rights movement and vitriolic condemnation of gay people and what he called sexual immorality, Link said. But Helms’ lasting impact on American politics cannot be understood without going beyond those labels, he said.
“He’s so important to the rise of the new conservatism, and if you want to understand politics today, you have to understand that,” Link said. “He was much more than a Southern racist.”
In many ways, the modern style of politics characterized by heavy use of media and television advertising can be traced directly back to Helms’ early campaigns in North Carolina, Link said.
At the end of his career, Helms had a profound impact on U.S. foreign policy during his time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which coincided with the presidency of Bill Clinton, Link said. He was strongly opposed to multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, and he helped to defeat American involvement in international arms proliferation agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
If these positions sound familiar, Link said, it’s probably because many of them are alive today in the policies of George W. Bush. In fact, many of Helms’ previous staffers hold positions in the current administration.
Though many of Helms’ opinions and contributions are highly controversial, the book tries to avoid making value judgments, Link said.
“It’s not at all a politically motivated book,” he said. “It’s a full and fair biographic portrayal.”
Link said he struggled most to stay impartial when discussing Helms’ positions on race and homosexuality, which he does not agree with.
“I think there’s an inherent difficulty as a biographer writing about things you don’t like,” he said.
Link spoke to more than 60 people in the course of writing the book, including colleagues, subordinates, friends and enemies. He also had access to speeches, newspaper coverage, and all of Helms’ correspondence since 1953. Helms himself was unavailable due to his failing health.
“Nearly every page seems to bring new insight and revelation,” he said.
Critchlow will speak at UF on Tuesday about the ascendancy of the modern Republican right. His speech starts at 7 p.m. in the Ocora Room in Pugh Hall. The event is free.