“I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
Those were the words of then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002. The remarks, made at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, unleashed an avalanche of criticism. Lott quickly apologized for appearing to praise a noted segregationist, but it wasn’t enough. Pointed criticism by Colin Powell, Jeb Bush and other Republicans forced Lott to step down from his leadership position.
Senator Ted Cruz, who will declare his candidacy for president Monday, recently embraced another vocal civil rights opponent but received far less scrutiny.
Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in September 2013, he lavishly praised former Senator Jesse Helms. “The willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic in this town, and you know what? It’s every bit as true now as it was then. We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate,” Cruz said.
While both Helms and Thurmond were known for their opposition to the civil rights movement, the Washington Post’s David Broder made the case that Helms was far worse in a 2001 column entitled “Jesse Helms, White Racist”:
Many of the accounts of Helms’s retirement linked him with another prospective retiree, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Both these Senate veterans switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party when the Democrats began pressing for civil rights legislation in the 1960s. But there is a great difference between them. Thurmond, who holds the record for the longest anti-civil rights filibuster, accepted change. For three decades he has treated African Americans and black institutions as respectfully as he treats all his other constituents.
To the best of my knowledge, Helms has never done what the late George Wallace did well before his death — recant and apologize for his use of racial issues.
In the 1960s, Helms supported apartheid. He was elected to the Senate in 1972 “as an opponent of integration, interracial marriage, and civil rights laws.” Cruz said his first political donation was a $10 donation to Helms when he was a kid.
Once in office, Helms filibustered the legislation creating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for 16 days and called the Civil Rights Act “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.” Helms was notorious for exploiting racial animus in his political campaigns, most famously running an ad featuring “a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter” while the narrator said “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority.”
While Lott’s comments in 2002 drew extensive media coverage, Cruz’s comments were quickly forgotten. There is no record of Cruz apologizing for his comments or even being asked about them. This isn’t particularly surprising since at the time Cruz was a recently elected freshman Senator from a deep red state.
But now that Cruz is running to be the Republican Party standard bearer in 2016, he has a Jesse Helms problem.