Friday, December 16, 2005
A pox on the Vox
There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can't think of one at the moment. If Christmas, season of sob stories, has turned me into Scrooge, I recognize the Dickensian counterpart of Paul Hewson--who calls himself "Bono"--as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Harping incessantly on her adopted village of Borrioboola-Gha "on the left bank of the River Niger," Mrs. Jellyby tries to save the Africans by financing them in coffee growing and encouraging schemes "to turn pianoforte legs and establish an export trade," all the while badgering people for money.Turning pianoforte legs! You can't beat Dickens. But I have to say I was already piqued at Bono, having read about his chummy dinner last week with Jesse Helms. The 84-year-old ex-senator joined the rock star backstage for some surf-and-turf action before a U2 concert. I'm glad Helms has decided to fight against AIDS. I'm glad Bono has made friends all across the ideological spectrum. But he's an out-of-towner and may be unaware of his dinner companion's checkered resume as a humanitarian. In the unlikely event that Bono should ever visit this site, here's a quick summary (from a 1995 Mother Jones article, written at a time when Helms's chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had begun to obscure his prior emphasis on, uh, domestic issues):
Long after die-hard segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond began courting black voters, Helms fueled white fears by opposing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whistling "Dixie" while standing next to Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, and supporting apartheid in South Africa.Let me say it again: in a civilized world, you can break bread with people whose political convictions you despise. And perhaps the compulsively race-baiting Helms has had a change of heart (although I doubt it.) But there is some truth to the old bromide about the company you keep--and Bono should know better.
"His racial politics are deeply held convictions, not simply politics of convenience," says Christopher Scott. "He has a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome. If you could pick up the South Africa of 20 years ago and transplant it to America, that's what he would do."
Born in Monroe, N.C., in the fall of 1921, Helms grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid. He dropped out of college to work full time as a reporter before discovering the two arenas that would shape his career: broadcasting and politics. He learned about radio as a Navy recruiter during World War II and stuck with the emerging medium as news director of a fledgling station in Raleigh. And he was an "unofficial" researcher for conservative Willis Smith, whose 1950 Senate campaign is still considered one of the meanest and most racially divisive in the country's history. (One of Smith's ads featured a doctored photo of the incumbent's wife dancing with a black man. Helms has denied any involvement, but a newspaper advertising manager later told Helms biographer Ernest Furgurson that Helms personally cut up the photos.)
Smith won, and Helms was rewarded with a job as staff administrative assistant. In 1953, Helms returned to North Carolina as executive director of the state's banking association, spending the next seven years fighting to enrich his bosses. He won a seat on the Raleigh City Council and, in 1960, took a job as a TV commentator. He spent the decade railing against King, "Negro hoodlums," the media, "sex perverts," and anyone on welfare. As he explained in one of his nightly five-minute broadcasts, "A lot of human beings have been born bums."