FIRST JERRY FALWELL, NOW JESSE HELMS. One by one, the famous bigots of America are contributing their best (and last) service to this nation's progress--they're dying.
Helms, the former North Carolina senator who passed away July 4, was born in 1921--three years after World War I ended and the year Adolf Hitler became leader of the Nazi Party. Indoctrinated in hatred decades before the civil rights era, Helms was known to whistle racist songs to black elected officials, and, as evidenced by transcripts from any number of Senate hearings, he had an amazing obsession with butt sex. ("There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy" typifies his thoughts on the matter.) As can happen to the luckiest of men, Helms's fetishes sometimes coalesced into one exciting orgy, as when he led the charge against government funding of Robert Mapplethorpe's "obscene" art.
In a tribute in July, President Bush described Helms as an "unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty." I can't say Bush's praise surprised me, but the Helms I remember was less devoted to liberty than he was to simply making other people's lives miserable.
Yet by vociferously making gay people his target, the gentleman from North Carolina ended up accomplishing the opposite of what he set out to do: He not only made us sympathetic, he made us stronger, prodding us to organize among ourselves and with the other evildoers--including the abortion-havers and the immigrants who want to take your jobs.
Folks like Helms will always exist, because hatred is the easiest route to infamy. But Helms seduced a population that has shrunk, and he represented a certain mind-set that has passed. That's why religious bigots like Fred Phelps of "God Hates Fags" fame look like mad-men, not prophets. Helms championed a view of America that aged and declined as he did. And it's probably better that the senator died when he did. If he had stayed around for this November's presidential election, a victory by a black man probably would have killed him.
Now that Helms is gone, there doesn't really seem to be anyone who can successfully carry on his life's work. All the other tyrannical titans are either dead or close to it. Falwell, the preacher and Hustler-suing monster who was nearly as terrible and insanely bigoted as Helms (but a bit busier lining his own pockets), died last year. And Anita Bryant, who famously helped repeal a 1970s Florida ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, is now 68 and never really heard from (on account of the bankruptcies and tacky concert runs).
Nowadays the political marketplace simply offers fewer rewards for outright bigotry. (Helms's increasing isolation as a lawmaker in the latter part of his tenure, which ended in 2003, was proof that he, as The Washington Post put it, "often took stands that isolated him from the left and the right.") Compared to a Helms or a Falwell, today's bigots wield little real power besides that of the comfort of blather. They feed a conservative viewpoint--but in actual effect they more closely resemble institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, which instructs its followers to do one thing (reject contraception and abortion, for example) but knows that many of them will do just the opposite (according to the Guttmacher Institute, Catholic women are almost as likely to have an abortion as non-religious women).
Today's just-for-profit pundits lack the power of a Helms or the pulpit of a Falwell. And they're getting pretty old themselves. Syndicated conservative talker Michael Alan Weiner, who does business under the name Michael Savage, is 66. …