I’ve read a lot of conservative defenses of Jesse Helms’ infamous “white hands” ad over the past few days, and I have to say it’s all pretty dumb:
Granted, there’s a difference between opposing affirmative action and being racist. Yes, this is an anti-affirmative action ad that seeks specifically to motivate white resentments rather than to appeal to an argument about fairness, but still, politics ain’t beanbag. But the obvious difference in the case of the Helms ad is that it was an ad for Jesse Helms who started his career running a race-baiting campaign for a white supremacist candidate who went on to become a white supremacist television commentator who left the Democratic Party over the Democratic Party’s abandonment of white supremacy who opposed making Martin Luther King Day a holiday who opposed the civil rights act, etc., etc., etc., and who never expressed any regrets about any of those things.
The context is clearly relevant and all points in one direction. The ad, absent Helms’ career, would just be a demagogic campaign ad among many demagogic campaign ads. But in the context of Helms’ career, it encapsulates his utter lack of remorse for his history of racial bigotry which, in turn, provides the context in which we must understand his anti-gay bigotry.
I think, however, that this will be the last I say on Helms. Ross Douthat takes the line I think conservatives ought to take on this character, as did Jonathan Rauch in 2002 and as does Max Boot. So I’ll wish them and whomever else luck in building a post-Helms conservatism and hope for the best.