Although I very much regret that I never had the chance to meet Jesse Helms, we did have what you might call a peripheral connection. The first took place nearly 20 years ago, when I was serving the second of my two terms on the Board of the Writers Guild of America.
Because the Board had the authority to mete out any sum less than $5,000 without putting it to a vote of the membership, groups and individuals were constantly showing up at our meetings and requesting $4,999. Often, they wanted it to help defray legal expenses in censorship cases, and because censorship is always a hot button issue with writers, and because most of the Board members were liberals, with a liberal sprinkling of ex-Communists, it figures that we usually coughed up the dough. Leftists, after all, are notorious spendthrifts when it comes to other people’s money.
On this one particular occasion, it was Robert Mapplethorpe’s lawyers who came hat in hand. Mapplethorpe, in case he’s slipped your mind, was a pornographer -- whoops, I mean a photographer -- whose work mainly consisted of frontal nudity shots of homosexual males and prepubescent boys and girls. He had also wowed the effete snobs who inhabit the art world with his Crucifix in Urine.
In any case, Sen, Jesse Helms had used the work of Mr. Mapplethorpe as a reason to cut off government funding of the National Endowment of the Arts. Inasmuch as I agreed with the senator’s low opinion of the NEA, and as I have always opposed tax dollars going to fund art, I voted against forking over good money to help Mapplethorpe fight an obscenity charge.
To convince a liberal that something is art, I came to realize, you merely have to put a frame around it. On more than one occasion, that “something” has not merely figuratively, but literally, been human excrement.
I’m not certain after all these years what Sen. Helms said when he railed against the NEA, but it goes without saying that he was excoriated by the New York Times and the rest of the liberal press. For my part, I was opposed to the NEA for two main reasons. One, in a country this large and prosperous, any artist who couldn’t support himself was in need of vocational guidance, not a government handout. Two, any no-talent poseur who applied to the NEA and didn’t get an endowment could be counted on to insist he was a political martyr being censored by Big Brother, and would inevitably show up in our boardroom, demanding $4,999 of the members’ money.
I wasn’t terribly surprised when I was out-voted 18-1 that evening. Heck, Sen Helms didn’t succeed in eliminating the NEA, either, and he had a lot more influence than I did. Even before the vote was taken, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. It was enough that Jesse Helms was on the other side. So not only did my fellow Board members get to align themselves with the headline-grabbing artiste, but got to thumb their noses at a Southern conservative. They were getting a lot of bang for their 4,999 bucks.
For my part, I got a lot of funny looks from my colleagues. It was as if I had shown myself to be one of those pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It was probably just as well that my second term was drawing to a close.
The second time the senator’s path and mine nearly crossed was when I was trying to line up people for my book of interviews, “The Secret of Their Success.” Even though I was eventually able to interview the likes of Gerald Ford, Billy Wilder, Henry Mancini, Gene Kelly, Steve Allen, Ginger Rogers, Art Linkletter, Michael Medved, Dinah Shore, Dennis Prager, Bernard Goldberg, Pat Sajak, George Carlin and Ward Connerly, it was never easy lining up subjects.
The most surprising thing is how often people would simply ignore my query letters. These were people, after all, who had scads of secretaries and platoons of personal assistants to take care of such matters.
My own attitude was that nobody owed me an hour or two of their time, but, as I wasn’t asking to borrow money, I felt I deserved the courtesy of a response even if it was no more than a “Thanks, but no thanks.” At least I could then scratch their names off my wish list.
Frankly, you’d be amazed at the hundreds of people, men and women, young and old, liberals and conservatives, who never bothered responding.
The fact is, Jesse Helms didn’t agree to be interviewed. However, he did have a letter sent to me in which he thanked me for my interest, but said that his busy schedule prevented his accepting my kind invitation to join such distinguished company, and wishing me luck with the book. As if that wasn’t enough, a few days later he had his secretary phone me from Washington to again thank me for my interest, while passing along Sen. Helms’s best wishes.
So far as I’m concerned, he was not only a great senator, he was a very nice man. A real mensch, as we say. And I’m only sorry that I never had a chance to meet him and tell him so face to face.
Related: A Long Night’s Journey Into Day