"Don't you think that's kind of silly?"
This was my mother's way of asking, ever so indirectly, if maybe I wouldn't mind watching something--anything--besides The Old Rebel Show. I was stretched out before the bluish screen of our yards-wide Zenith, tinkering with a Lego city while my morning shows fuzzed amiably along. And to my 3-year-old mind nothing, not even Captain Kangaroo, struck a tone more amiable than The Old Rebel Show, fresh each 9 a.m. from the studios of WFMY-TV, Channel 2, Greensboro.
The Old Rebel was a kindly, white-whiskered gent who always sported a tall fat hat, an old-timey string tie and a vest that--once we got color--shone brightest red. Each show was taped in front of a squirmy audience of local children, most of them Caucasian, many of them celebrating birthdays. They got to introduce themselves to the host, giggle at Huckleberry Hound cartoons and Lonesome Lee the clown, and sing along to the Old Rebel's fan club song:
Some of us are rebels
And some are buckaroos
And we are very helpful
From our helmets to our shoes
And when we're asked to lend a hand
We never do refuse
'Cause some of us are rebels
And some are buckaroos.
By the mid-'60s, when I tuned in, the Old Rebel was an institution. He'd been doing the act forever--since 1951, actually, though in your imagination it stretched clean back to before the Cause was lost. If his show added up to minstrelsy in whiteface, the man was right subtle about it. He waved no Confederate flags, as far as I remember, and told no tall tales about the bravery and noblesse of our boys in gray. The most Dixified parts were Huckleberry Hound and the high-pitched accents of the studio audience.
Yet and still: He was the Old Rebel. And the Old Rebel was a warm, somewhat witty, churchgoing man every white child in Piedmont North Carolina wanted for a granddaddy. Just that--every morning at 9 o'clock--spoke volumes, buckaroos.
So when I sassed back over my shoulder, answering my mother's implicit plea for one morning's release from this dimwitted show, I was pointing toward a truth larger than either of us knew. "What's silly about it?"
"Hey, y'all! Get in here quick. That nut's coming on." This was my brother-in-law, a veterinary student at North Carolina State University, beckoning us into the living room of his and my sister's Cameron Village apartment. On WRAL-TV, Channel 5, Raleigh, another minstrel in whiteface was about to do his thing. He did it five nights a week, five minutes a night, and 60 radio stations broadcast the festivities to folks outside of viewing range. But I had managed to miss his marble-mouthed drawl until this autumn evening in 1970.
It didn't take long to see what I'd been missing.
Here sat a middle-aged man with thick glasses affixed to a peanut-shaped head. His face wore a painful look, as though his hemorrhoids had flared up bad during the commercial break. When he opened his mouth and commenced to talking out one side, the sound was what you'd expect to hear from somebody who'd gotten a wad of chewing tobacco stuck in his gullet around the time of Shiloh, never to be coughed up completely.
That night's "Viewpoint" topic was a freshly awful, anti-American, dope-smoking sissy thing that a bunch of hippies had done. The only reason I can report this with confidence is that Jesse Helms' pronunciation of the word "hippies"--phonetically, "heh-puhs"--became my new running joke. For weeks afterward I'd squench my 7-year-old face into a mortally disgusted expression, drop my voice as low as it would go, and drawl, "Now can you-all believe what them heh-puhs gone and done this time?" I just knew it was the funniest thing ever.
What I did not know--could not imagine--was that this show was meant to be serious. As Ferrell Guillory, of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, recently told The Winston-Salem Journal, Helms "said out loud on television what a lot of people would say around the kitchen table or at the feed and seed store. If you put yourself back into the tumult of those times, he was the voice of the resistance, the voice of discontent."
Notice anything weird about that? A white male, the son of a police chief, speaking on behalf of the majority--and that's "the voice of the resistance"? Where did that leave the black students sitting in at the Woolworth's counter in Greensboro? The white kids protesting the war in Chapel Hill? The women agitating for equal rights?
Convincing people that he was the rebel, the new rebel, was Jesse Helms' triumph. He did it by playing to the queer Southern notion, born around 1845, that rebelling meant defending the status quo. He did it with an act that was part Old Rebel (nostalgic and witty in his way), part George C. Wallace ("Are civil rights only for Negroes?") and part Archie Bunker ("The more we remove the penalties for being a bum, the more bumism is going to blossom.").
He also did it by convincing folks that the people trying to move things forward were high-falutin'," humorless, dangerous fools who looked down their noses at anybody with an accent. Every minstrel needs a straight man. For Jesse, it was this creature called a liberal (phonetically, "lib-rul").
By the time he took his act on the road in 1972, becoming North Carolina's first Republican in the U.S. Senate since the 1890s, Jesse had been riling everybody up for 12 years. And he had learned a few things that would come in mighty handy.
Lesson One: If you make a big enough spectacle of yourself, folks will stop arguing the issues and start arguing about you.
Lesson Two: It sure is easy to make the liberals mad. And the madder you make them, the more you can get everybody else--even those lily-livered moderates who think you transcend the bounds of politeness--laughing at them.
Last lesson: Once you've got enough moderates on your side, because you've made the liberals look more self-righteous and silly than you? Buddy, you can pack your bags for Washington and plan on a nice long engagement.
"You know anybody with a copy of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'?"
This was the husky voice of a political activist, calling one fall afternoon in 1990 to let me know about an anti-Helms rally. We laughed and laughed, thinking how we'd celebrate on a night not far away. The night we'd finally see Jesse concede defeat. And not just to anybody: to a black man, Harvey Gantt, who was leading in the polls by a slim-but-giddy margin.
Jesse's time was up. Sure, we'd thought the same thing in 1984, but that was a presidential election year--and, besides, Jim Hunt had made the mistake of getting down in the mud and trying to wrestle with the master. Gantt had avoided that, stayed above the fray, conducted himself with a dignity that was highlighting Helms' lack thereof. Plus, this was 1990, was it not? North Carolina had changed, had it not? All those Northern transplants. All that New South prosperity. It was simply inconceivable that an old-fashioned, hate-spewing bigot could win an off-year election in such a place.
Especially not by five full percentage points. Which is what he did. It is, in fact, what he always did. For all the references to his races "always being close," not once did Jesse win less than 52 percent of the vote. His narrowest margin of victory was 4 percent over Hunt. There is a certain befuddled man in a big white Washington mansion who would have given his eyeteeth for a "close call" like that.
After every sound drubbing, we liberals were armed with excuses. In 1990, Jesse won by playing the race card in that awful "white hands" ad. He won by dodging debates. He won by scaring every Christian Coalition member in the state to the polls. He won by ... well, the list went on. It always did. In '72, it was Nixon's coattails. In '78, an opponent so lame--anyone remember Insurance Commissioner John Ingram?--that Jesse outspent him 30 to one. In '84, Jim Hunt's mud-slinging and Reagan's coattails.
If all else failed, we'd mutter under our breath about a bunch of local yokels too numbskulled to see through Jesse's claim to be fighting for the working man. Couldn't these people comprehend that their man was a shill for corporations and dictators, a blatant hypocrite stabbing them in the back? Couldn't they understand what a national laughing-stock he made North Carolina?
The last thing we'd do was blame ourselves. But the joke was on us. Still is. Because did you notice what happened when Jesse announced he was retiring, unbowed and undefeated? We danced and sang. Doobies were lit. Glasses were clinked. Out came those dusty Joan Baez records. The Charlotte Observer's editorial cartoonist captured the mood perfectly, drawing a Confederate flag lowered to half mast, a black cloud behind it, a newspaper headline at the foot of the flagpole: "HELMS RETIRES." The New York Times merrily noted that the most recent poll of North Carolinians had had Helms losing in 2002 to "somebody." A scribe in the very weekly you're reading seconded the emotion, opining that Helms had not given up his seat because he is feeble enough to have one wing tip already in the grave, but because he foresaw certain defeat.
Jesse's time was up. We won!
Hogwash. I mean, I'd like to believe it. I'd like to think that whiteface minstrels won't draw crowds in my home state anymore. But I can't shake the feeling that celebrating his retirement as though it were a victory is exactly what Jesse would like us to do. That it will brighten his dying days with no end of wheezy chuckles.
Helms suckered his supporters, yes. But he also suckered his opponents. He had us believing that if we could just get rid of him, everything he stood for would collapse and perish. But you know what? He'll soon be gone. The 53 percent of voters who elected him in 1990 and 1996 won't be. What have we done to change their minds about Jesse's cockeyed views? What have we done to change their minds about ours?
Even if we put a Democrat into his Senate seat, what will we truly have gained? That Democrat, you can be sure, will have no more than one or two progressive bones in her body. Ask John Edwards: You can't win in this state without playing by rules that Jesse invented.
And you can't change the rules until you first admit you've lost. Admit you've been whipped, humiliated, duped and outfoxed. Then you can start to figure out why, and maybe start turning it around.
I don't pretend to have the magic formula. But having grown up among the white, working-class Tar Heels who made up most of Jesse's 53 percent, I know this much: Folks do like rebels. They also like progress. But libruls in North Carolina, myself included, have done a piss-poor job of making the link between rebellion and progress. Folks have seen us on the defensive. They've watched us expend our energies charging like mad bulls at every red cape Jesse flashed our way. They've listened to the way we whine and whimper, blame them and him, when we miss the target again.
Guess what, buckaroos? That red cape just flashed again. Time to either charge ahead or change the script.
Bob Moser, who edited The Independent from 1995 to 2000, writes and edits for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.