I met Jesse Helms in the closing days of the 1990 U.S. Senate campaign, at one of his rallies in a Smithfield high school gymnasium in Johnston County. I had spent the summer traveling the state to register voters against Helms as a co-founder of Musicians Organized for Voter Education (MOVE), and I had to see the man in the flesh.
The warm-up speakers were other right-wing Republican candidates and current office-holders, but none of them held a candle to Helms when he took the stage. Frail-looking and thin even then, his voice nonetheless boomed around the gymnasium like a thunderstorm. He played the crowd's fears like a virtuoso, stirring them out of their seats in demagogic riff after riff about homosexuals, liberals and minorities trying to destroy the North Carolina way of life.
He tossed around staples from that year's version of his stump speech. Like justifying his crusade against art by hissing, "What that perverted, homosexual filth is, is not modern-day Michaelangelo, it is modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah!" Or mixing bigotry with down-home country flavor, telling the crowd to "Think about it. Homosexuals and lesbians, disgusting people marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other. How do you like them apples?"
Never before or since have I witnessed a crowd whipped into such a frenzy, or felt more prejudice and ignorance all around me. Maybe it was that the crowd, like those attending most of Helms' events, was made up mostly of senior citizens raised during the segregation era. They grew up prejudiced partly because they didn't know any better, and voted for Helms because he seemed like them. To me, it seemed that hatred hung in the air.
When it was over, I ran into Helms by chance as he was leaving the high school, and something possessed me to shake his hand, to see if he felt as menacing as he sounded. His hand was cold, and soft and flabby as a jellyfish. He was just a man, not the devil. But there was evil in his politics.