Friday, July 04, 2008

The Dark Knight

I was picking up subs at a surfside deli when the TV in the corner caught my eye. Onscreen, a horn-rimmed and dark-haired Jesse Helms clutched a podium as he railed against something or another. I grabbed some extra napkins and headed for the door, happy again not to be in the newsroom. But back on the beach, I found I couldn't escape the shadow cast by this man's passing. Jesse Helms: polarizing patriarch, Southern-fried icon, one-time face of the Old North State, patron saint of racist assholes everywhere. Were it only that simple...

I came of age in the 80's. By then Helms was a local legend of course, but in my little circle of dirt I didn't give him much thought. Never all that politically astute, I lived a full, young life without ever forming an opinion on him one way or another. It wasn't until later that I realized my least favorite playmates called him 'Uncle' Jesse. Small-minded and ball-capped, the redneck junior set parroted the dogmatic bromides they no doubt heard at home. Dismissing them as simple, I was as convinced their hero was a cretin as I was certain that David Bowie was really, really, really cool. It wasn't until years later, however, that I realized how far Jesse's legacy had traveled. Fresh aboard my first Navy vessel, I found most of my shipmates from up North identified my beloved state with the laser-focused fanaticism of Senator Helms. Of course, I fought this stereotype by quoting Ziggy Stardust lyrics and deconstructing Andy Griffith episodes, but more than a few salts remained unconvinced.

Fast forward several years. Thousands of angry tobacco growers stormed the very steps nation's capitol in a nicotine-drenched protest of President Clinton's plan to hike the tax on cigarettes. There amid the throng of Carrharts and camouflage, a young punk with a fancycam on his shoulder paced, fidgeted and wondered why he wasn't allowed to use his tripod. Before I could figure it out however, the Friends of Tobacco lost their collective shit as none other than Jesse Helms stepped before the podium. On instinct, I centered my lens on him - but the sound of gnashing of teeth drowned out whatever message he brought the tobacco nation that day. Afterwards, Helms stuck around to shake hands and bless babies. Moving in, I shot footage of the Senator and his syncophants from just a few foot away until an opportunity presented itself. Signaling a print photographer friend, I took the Senator's hand in a friendly embrace and gave my best shit-eating grin as my buddy reluctantly triggered the shutter. I had great hopes for that photo, but my photographer friend never coughed it up. It occurs to me now he probably never pushed the button.

Less than eight years later, our paths would cross again at Senator Lauch Faircloth's campaign headquarters in Raleigh. It was election night and the avuncular Faircloth was getting his political ass handed to him on a hundred dollar plate by the far more telegenic John Edwards. The evening began as festive, with happy families clapping (almost) in time to a banjo-playing Uncle Sam band. But as the returns came in, the room went ugly. Soon the same pickled old ladies who'd just hours earlier toasted my lens, mouthed curses as I panned from them to the network feed of their defeat. With every update it became apparent to all that Lauch was going to have alot more time to spend with his grandkids. Smelling blood, even more camera crews arrived until the ballroom floor teemed with reporters, Republicans and other breeds of drunken fat-cat. Just when civilization threatened to collapse, a spotlight hit the stage and out rolled a gaunt and grinning Jesse Helms. The crowd began to mumble in tongues, acting in a manner I would witness one year later when another Jesse (by the name of Jackson) healed the woes of a hundred flood victims merely by showing up at their shelter. I didn't understand a damn word the marble-mouthed Helms said that night, but I credit his message with allowing me to escape unharmed.

And now, Jesse's dead. The pasty lawmaker with the familiar twang and wholesale derision of those unlike himself is explaining it all to his Maker. Try as I might though, I can't hate him. His naked campaigns against African Americans, Homosexuals and his political enemies still piss me off. But the Senator who rose to power on the strength of his rabid WRAL editorials has my begrudging respect - if only because of his mastery of the media. No North Carolina politician ever played the press as deftly as Jesse Helms. He knew his base and he knew how to get into their homes, their hearts and their hate. That doesn't make him any less misdirected, but it does complicate his canon. I'm reminded of a piece Neill McNeill and I produced recently on Helms' latest biography. During the interview, author William Link confirmed my suspicion that the Senator everyone loved to hate deserved more than plain vitriol. Then Neill further muddied the waters with a back-scenes anecdote he shares here. Really now, can a man who stops to talk fancycams really be all that bad?

Don't bother answering; I'm on vacation...


Rosenblum said...

Great stuff man.
Did you ever read anything by Teddy White?

in-gun-ear said...

Helms loved to get in front of ANY camera didn't he? I ran into him twice in my life and both times he deemed it necessary to shack my hand. First time when he was running for the Senate in 1972. As a 12 year old in a Boy Scott Drum and Bugle Corp (I was a snare drummer) in a July 4th Parade no less, we were standing around waiting for God knows what when this entourage of suited men with "Vote for Jesse" buttons on their jackets and camera wheeling hangers on (mostly of the printed media kind in those days) came by. Next thing I know I am shacking Helm's hand and people are snapping pictures and one made the front page of the local fish wrap. I think my mother still has the 8 x10 and the newsprint picture as well somewhere.

Fast forward to 1983 and I am now working in radio, dating a radio news reporter (now my bride of 23 years) who had to cover Senator Helms' arrival at the local airport, in the rain no less. In my best dirty jeans and station jacket (that is what I wore all the time back then because that is all I could afford) we went to the airport so she could get a sound bite of Helms spouting something and then off to supper before I had to go to work on the night shift.

Standing in the doorway off the tarmac (you could do that in those days) just killing time, up pops Senator Helms and I am shaking his hand and getting my picture taken, AGAIN! (There is a law isn't there against unwanted picture taking with a politician?) By this time in my life I KNOW I am no "Jessecrat" but with a billboard on my back, and an owner who was more conservative than William Buckley, I smiled and pumped back.

HHHMM. Looks like there is a blog here. You WILL see this again in a slightly different form! Thanks for the push.