Jesse Helms

Time to smash whatever it was –heat? humidity? exhaustion?—that allowed Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) to go on the Senate floor and propose an amendment that would rename a current $50 million appropriations bill to fight HIV/AIDS after her long-time friend, former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who had just passed away on July 4. With a straight face, Dole praised the strong moral convictions of Helms, making some empty remarks about how “you always knew where he stood” and other pleasantries, what he a hero he was and so on.

The problem is that he wasn’t a hero and any attempts by Dole and Fox News, for example, to sanitize the legacy of this man or even misrepresent the hatred and venom this person had for gays and people of color especially must be confronted. Mrs. Dole acts as if Helms’ statements, like the one in 1988, that “there is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy”. Or, as ABC News’s Jake Tapper reminds us, when arguing for AIDS research funding, he characterized the disease as resulting from “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct” and that “we’ve got to have some common sense about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts.”

The bill is not strictly related to HIV/AIDS, since it also applies to the current travel ban against visitors to the USA who have HIV. This doesn’t have to be the legacy of Helms per se, but his past statements have to reconsidered in light of Mrs. Dole’s ill-advised remarks. To suddenly rename the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008 would, according to Mrs. Dole, accomplish the following:

SA 5074. Mrs. DOLE submitted an amendment intended to be proposed by her to the bill S. 2731, to authorize appropriations for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 to provide assistance to foreign countries to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and for other purposes; which was ordered to lie on the table; as follows: On page 1, line 5, strike ‘‘and Henry J. Hyde’’ and insert ‘‘, Henry J. Hyde, and Jesse Helms’’

And this is the rub. All Mrs. Dole wants to do is add a single name but in so doing she is insulting millions of people, and countless victims, who have associated that name with discrimination, anti-gay language, homophobia, and if we really want to go back a few decades to his early career, staunch racism. Helms helped write the law that imposed the very travel ban that may or may not be lifted as a result of this bill.

Surely Mrs. Dole was not thinking straight on this one, or that she was ignorant of his past views. There has to be a better way to remember him and honor his passing than by placing his name on this bill, and reliving the pain of his divisive words once again. Mrs. Dole was not an uninformed housewife back in the 80s when the AIDS crisis hit and when the Reagan Administration seemed to ignore it; she was very much involved in public office, so it’s hard to excuse this kind of boneheaded move.

We can understand that, if reports are to be believed, that Helms’ views about AIDS funding had mellowed in recent years, as he retired from the Senate. But it’s strong and ultimately influential views of the time that constitute his legacy today. Mrs. Dole isn’t perhaps one of the “worst” persons of the day, according to Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” show. She just shows uncharacteristic insensitivity.

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