One is told not to speak ill of the dead, and even the obit writers of this ill-mannered site usually find some praiseworthy note—Hitler was kind to animals!—in even the shabbiest of lives. But it would be dishonest to pretend that Jesse Helms was anything other than a caricature of a Southern bigot.

The long-time Republican senator from North Carolina—who died today at the age of 86—disliked using the term "gay" to describe homosexuals because "there's nothing gay about them." The Hands ad (featured here) during Helms' 1990 re-election campaign played into the most basic of white fears of black political power and racial quotas. And the cranky politico took seeming pleasure in opposing every cause dear to the liberal heart, such as foreign aid or support for the arts.

Helms—who never secured more the 55% of the vote even in conservative North Carolina—foreshadowed the Republican political strategy of the last four cycles, ever mindful of the base and content to govern with the narrowest of coalitions. The only thing that can be said of the former senator is that he recognized race-baiting became less effective over time as older conservative voters died off, and the wedge-driving politics that he so symbolized has run its course.

The latest polls put Barack Obama—amazingly—only 5 points behind in North Carolina. An ad as crude and divisive as Hands—"You needed that job," the narrator tells a white man who's just received a rejection letter—won't play so well this time.

  • Helms' courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art. [New York Times]