A senator who said no to change

It didn't take long for someone to compare Jesse Helms with two other famous Americans who died on July 4.

“It's just incredible that he would die on the same day of the Declaration of Independence and the same day that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, and he certainly is a patriot in the mold of those great men,” said former N.C. Republican Rep. Bill Cobey.

I mean no disrespect to say that when I think of Founding Fathers Adams and Jefferson, former N.C. Senator Helms is not the next name on the list. He is part of a different trio, Southern politicians who clung to an idea of a simpler, more orderly society that selectively excluded those unlike themselves. But unlike George Wallace and Strom Thurmond – who also rode the racial divide to political success and international prominence – Helms insisted his views never wavered.

Helms was as complex as any man, famous for both his personal kindnesses and the nickname “Senator No,” which he wore with pride. In 1962, the year Helms and his wife adopted a young boy with cerebral palsy who wished for a mother and father – as selfless an act as anyone could imagine – he was railing against the hopes and dreams of other parents and their children locked out of the American dream.

The “No” came to mean opposition to everything from foreign aid to Medicare. (His opposition to AIDS funding eventually softened with a nudge from rock star Bono.)

But the “No” was also a wish that a way of life could stand still. Helms' Monroe childhood set in stone his idea of how things should be, with neighbors who looked out for one another and social lines that could never be crossed. Everybody knew the rules and his or her place – small-town values curdling into small-mindedness.

“Whether you agreed or not, you know where he stood.”

Oh, yes, you did.

The 1964 Civil Rights bill was “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress,” he said. Helms became part of the Southern stampede to the GOP and away from the Democratic Party associated with the legislation.

The University of North Carolina was the “University of Negroes and Communists.” In his view, blacks such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who aspired and worked toward equality were Marxists.

A genteel courtliness in personal interactions could turn into ridicule and retribution writ large, and Helms reveled in it. He was a character who came to symbolize North Carolina, the good and the bad.

In memorials to him that continue to pour in from preachers and presidents, his obstructionist streak is held up as a virtue, morphing into something quaint, like a love of sweet tea and lace curtains. He is admired for standing firm in his views, with little regard for what some of those views were – steadfast until the end.

It is not just the date, but the year of Helms' death that is striking – a year of a presidential contest that he could scarcely have imagined growing up in Monroe.

As family and friends mourn the loss of someone they loved, you can empathize without feeling one whit of nostalgia for a way of life that has passed as well.

Jesse Helms never changed.

America did.