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The late U.S. senator Jesse Helms was the personification of homophobia and racism, but one rising star among Republicans thinks there should be 100 more like him.
Granted, freshman senator Ted Cruz of Texas focused on Helms's foreign policy positions in delivering the annual Helms Lecture Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank. But after relating a tale about actor John Wayne making a donation to Helms's first political campaign and saying the nation needed 100 more like him, Cruz said, "It's every bit as true now as it was then -- we need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate." Cruz also said the first political contribution he ever made was to Helms, a Republican from North Carolina.
While noting that it's no surprise that Cruz would praise Helms at such an event, several progressive commentators pointed out the bigotry that pervaded Helms's politics. He sought to block funding for AIDS education and the work of gay artists, was responsible for a long-standing policy against admitting HIV-positive immigrants and foreign visitors to the U.S., and opposed the nomination of "damn lesbian" Roberta Achtenberg to a federal government post. He appealed to racism when campaigning against a black opponent, filibustered against establishing a holiday to honor Martin Luther King, and even serenaded African-American senator Carol Moseley Braun with "Dixie," saying he hoped to "make her cry." He denounced the U.S. Civil Rights Act and once called the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill "the University of Negroes and Communists."
"Jesse Helms was a bad person in a uniquely terrible way that increased pain and suffering for countless individuals," wrote Tim Murphy on Mother Jones's website. Murphy noted that Helms called gay people "weak, morally sick wretches," said that "there is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy," and asserted that AIDS education is "so obscene, so revolting, I may throw up."
MSNBC host Chris Hayes took Cruz to task Thursday night on his program, All In, After offering a list of Helms's racist actions, Hayes adding that the late senator was also "a notorious, nasty, brutish homophobe." Hayes wondered if Cruz would get in the same trouble that Sen. Trent Lott did when he praised segregationist politician Strom Thurmond, an incident that led to Lott being forced out as Senate majority leader. He also observed that remarks like Cruz's could interfere with the Republican Party's stated goal of reaching out to minority groups, and asked guest Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee, if Cruz should apologize. Steele said no, that Cruz was merely expressing "one man's opinion about who he wishes to praise."
On her MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow also discussed Helms's record, and she observed that he died in 2008, having "never repented, never apologized" for his views. She concluded, "Whistling 'Dixie' in Carol Moseley Braun's face in the Senate elevator. We need a hundred more Jesse Helmses. That's what Ted Cruz thinks would be good for America. What happens next in this situation?" She also discussed the incident with gay MSNBC colleague Steve Kornacki, speculating that Republicans may have moved so far to the right as to not be embarrassed about Cruz's remarks as they were about Lott's.
Watch videos of Hayes and Maddow below.