To all the statistics regarding the North Carolina senatorial race won by Jesse Helms, may I add this one: 62. It is the reported number of people murdered last year in attacks on homosexuals. The best you can say about Jesse Helms is that he did nothing to lower those numbers.
In the closing days of his campaign, Helms appealed not only to racism but to homophobia as well. He accused his opponent, Harvey Gantt, of accepting money from gay groups -- funds raised, Helms said, in gay bars. "Why are homosexuals buying this election for Harvey Gantt?" a Helms newspaper ad asked. "Because Harvey Gantt will support their demands for mandatory gay rights!!" The word "mandatory," like the double exclamation points, was a redundancy for dolts. Hide your children, the "queers" are coming.
Hatred of homosexuals remains the last acceptable American bigotry. Like many other forms of prejudice, it rests on a scaffolding of stereotypes, some of them taken from real life, some of them almost imaginary. One of the latter is the gay teacher who seduces boys, converting them to homosexuality. In real life, it's heterosexuals who usually do the seducing, but Helms played on the fear anyway. It's his brand of leadership.
Racism, on the other hand, has been banished from the American political dialogue. That's why David Duke, a racist and antisemite if there ever was one, was booted from the Republican Party. Duke's racism was once raw and uncomplicated -- as raw as once being a Nazi and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That being the case, it hardly mattered that in his recent senatorial campaign, Duke eschewed outright racism and concentrated instead on affirmative action. We all knew what he was saying.
But really, don't we know also what Helms was saying? He aired a television commercial that showed nothing more than a pair of white hands in evident anguish as they crumpled what is evidently a job rejection letter. "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified," the announcer says. "But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that fair?"
My answer might well be: no. I have my problems with affirmative action, and I think the issue is worth discussing. But Helms was not discussing affirmative action at all -- not in a way that makes sense. Instead, he was attempting to polarize his state along racial lines, something he has done before. A clear opponent of every civil rights bill ever to come down the pike, a racial trouble-izer of the first order (Jesse Jackson is a-coming, he warned his constituents), Helms was in no way discussing affirmative action. Instead, he donned the sheet that could not be seen.
The primary obligation of a politician is not different from that of a physician: First, do no harm. Helms does plenty of harm. He is entitled to be a political reactionary, not to mention a mean and cantankerous human being. But his appeals to bigotry, above all to homophobia, should put him beyond the pale of American politics. For some reason, though, they do not. The same GOP that would have nothing to do with Duke embraced Helms. President Bush campaigned for him twice, raising an estimated $1 million. What point of light was this?
When it comes to homosexuals, the sum and substance of Helms' message is one that encourages continued discrimination and, indeed, violence. Helms may say, "Prove it," to which I respond, sorry, I cannot. But as a citizen and a journalist, I know my country. I know, in other words, that just as lynchings occurred in a hospitable political culture, so do assaults on gays. There were nearly 800 of them last year, some resulting in death, others in injuries so horrible (attempts at castration) that few newspapers would report them in any detail. To some men, the difference between gays and deer is a mere technicality. The latter can only be hunted in season.
Helms is once again a winner and, as usual, for a variety of reasons. But one of them, surely, is that he appealed to the prejudices of the electorate. It's too late now for George Bush to refuse to campaign for Helms, too late for the GOP to treat him as it did David Duke. Maybe the most we can ask is some sense of shame. For the Republican Party in the matter of Jesse Helms, it would be well-deserved.