Jesse Helms died yesterday.

The Guardian described him as a "rightwing senator who opposed civil rights, gun laws, hippies, foreign aid and the UN." My initial response was that they left out art. The man opposed funding for the arts with vigor.

My earliest political memory is of a senatorial campaign between Harvey Gantt and Helms, which featured ads describing Gantt's political record and ended with the phrase "too liberal for North Carolina." I remember thinking that everything mentioned in the ad was a good thing and then being really surprised that it was an attack ad.

I remember watching "Dear Jesse" in college, and aside from being taken aback by the appearance of Matthew Shepard (yes, that Matthew Shepard), I remember being really surprised at how fair and balanced the documentary was, given that it was about Jesse Helms and was made by a gay man.

I almost had a party to celebrate his retirement. (I was thwarted by the rules in my apartment complex.) After his retirement, he settled into a fairly quiet life only popping into politics to endorse the occasional candidate. But he also became convinced that AIDS was a bad thing and argued for funding to fight AIDS in Africa. So much so that Bono praised him for it at one point.

He adopted a child, not because he and his wife could not conceive, but because the kid, who had cerebral palsy, had asked for parents for Christmas.

On this forth of July, I am struck by how similarly I think about Jesse Helms and America. I feel deeply conflicted when I think about them both and rack up more negative connotations than positive. They both are mostly symbolic in my mind, but they symbolize home: deeply flawed, well-intentioned and capable of change. That Jesse Helms, who in many ways was a symbol of hate, was capable of good deeds throughout his life, both large and small and was capable of rethinking things even late in life gives me hope for a better day in America, and in the wider world.

I'm hoping that Jesse is facing a merciful judgment in the Heaven of "Angels in America" :

Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens... ...prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome.

I think that only in the Kingdom of Heaven can race, taste, and history be overcome. Good thing we've got the chance to catch glimpses of it here and now.

Elizabeth Bathurst

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