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Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism Hardcover – February 5, 2008
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"Bill Link's masterful biography of Jesse Helms lays bare the roots of his conservative politics grounded in his white supremacist childhood and documents Helms's influence in shaping the course of national politics. Exhaustively researched and crisply written, Link proves Helms's importance to the Republican Party's southern strategy at home and his exportation of conservative southern values into U.S. foreign policy. This is fundamental reading for anyone interested in the rise of conservativism and politics in general in our time." -- Glenda Gilmore, Peter V. And C. Van Woodward Professor of History, Yale University
"Professor Link's fascinating political biography of Jesse Helms is also an authoritative study of the rise of the New Right. Through Helms's career, we see the knitting together of the various strands of conservatism that account for Ronald Reagan's triumph in 1980, the Republican Party's Congressional revolution of 1994, and much else. Vivid characters and important issues fill the pages of 'Righteous Warrior,' and the reader is eager to keep turning those pages."-- Sheldon Hackney, Boies Professor of US History, University of Pennsylvania
"Historian William Link captures in this incisive biography the complexity of Jesse Helms—a personally kind and charitable man who supported racial segregation; an affable and principled politician who played hard ball politics to get what he wanted; and a controversial symbol of the New Right in America, a hero to his followers and a demon to his enemies." --Donald T. Critchlow, Author of The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History
About the Author
William A. Link is the Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History at the University of Florida. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.
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As a doctoral student in the history department that Dr. Link formerly chaired (UNC-Greensboro), I had the opportunity to gain "inside" knowledge on how Link did his work. Ignoring a good deal of criticism from colleagues (who felt the historian too generous toward his subject), Link produced a balanced view of a politician easily caricatured as a buffoon or neanderthal: in truth, Helms was neither angel nor devil. Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of this work is its balance; clearly, the reviewer who lambasted this book on this website never read, or even skimmed, the work.
Like most of Link's other works, "Righteous Warrior" is thick with detail, and is, at times, a bit dry. Furthermore, the book focuses on Helms' political, rather than his personal, life; you won't find much of the story of how Helms' upbringing and background shaped him. However, the work is certainly worth reading, especially for anyone interested in the machinations that brought Ronald Reagan and the Right into power during the 1980s.
That's why it is so interesting to hear about its "humble beginnings," which were in the white South's resistance to federally-mandated civil rights legislation. This, of course, was nothing new, and the South had been fighting this ever since their defeat of Reconstruction (with the help of some white-robe-clad compatriots). But in the 1950s and 1960s, the perceived federal interventions had drastically increased, and this segment of the southern population flocked to leaders who would stand up against the tide.
Helms, of course, was one such leader, and the conservatives of North Caroline elected him to the Senate for five terms. Unlike other southerners known for their anti-civil rights stances, he never relented or repented, unlike George Wallace or Strom Thurmond. To some, that makes him more honorable.
The author is by no means unbiased, but that doesn't mean the book lacks objectivity, nor does it mean we ought not to believe anything written in the book. One can personally be liberal but still write an honest biography of a conservative. After all, if the book were written by an outspoken Helms supporter (or Helms himself, who has in fact written an autobiography), it would be subject to the same attacks of unfairness. Do we demand a book written by someone with no personal opinions whatsoever about Helms or what he stood for? I suspect such a hypothetical author wouldn't really have much to say, about Helms or about anything.
The book was especially interesting to read now (mid-2010), in the light of the nascent "Tea Party" movement of conservatism. While the tea party people aren't openly racist as was Helms, their basis of support is most likely drawn from the same well as the New Right. Resistance to federal intervention originated for many families as resistance to desegregation.
I recommend reading this with an open mind. If you are liberal, you'll find yourself agreeing with a lot, and if you're conservative, you'll find yourself challenged. But are you challenged by the facts? Does anyone disagree that Helms did in fact argue against racially integrating his own church, against a Martin Luther King holiday, or that he made no secret of the disgust he felt towards gays? These are the facts of his life, and those can't be disputed.
While the book relates some interesting episodes from the life and professional career of Senator Jesse Helms, it ultimately fails to capture the character of the man, falling victim instead to the obvious, politically liberal bias of the author (a member of Historians for Obama). In fact, Link's admiration for one of the Senate's most liberal members (THE most liberal, according to the National Journal Survey in 2008) should serve as caution enough about the prejudiced liberal leanings that inevitably influenced his biography on one of the Senate's most conservative members.
Under the guise of serious scholarship, Link skews his presentation - in a way that actually reveals his own biased viewpoint - selectively picking and choosing what he would include and what he would ignore in order to perpetuate his preconceived slant on a man he never met.
It was my privilege to work with Senator Helms for 12 of his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, and I scarcely recognize the man Link portrays. I remember being interviewed by Link more than a year before the book was published in preparation for his biography on the senator.
At the time, he portrayed himself as a professional and disinterested historian, who wanted to write a factual and objective portrait of North Carolina's longest-serving senator whom he considered had been pivotal in the development of modern-day conservative politics.
Imagine my surprise when I read in the preface to his book that, in fact, he came to his project not with any sort of academic neutrality but rather with a fundamentally liberal prejudice. Link, who is now a professor in Florida, lived in North Carolina for much of the Senator's tenure, and he says that while a constituent of the Senator's, "I subscribed to his demonization; he represented everything that I dislike in modern politics, his policies represented polar opposites of everything I believed in."
Of Helms' first election in 1972, Link, who was a college student at the time, says he "regarded him as out of the political mainstream and of little importance: most people, especially in student circles of the 1970s, regarded him as something of a buffoon who would almost certainly not last longer than a single term."
That bias, finally confessed, is not confined to the preface, but drips from page after page. In fact, to a group editorial writers assembled in Chapel Hill earlier this year, Link acknowledged that he lived in North Carolina at the time of most of Helms' election campaigns (four out of five) and voted against Helms each time.
That's hardly the record of an impartial observer.
Link's dislike, distrust, and disagreement with Helms is obvious throughout.
For instance, any time there is a choice between believing what Helms said were his reasons or motivations for a particular position during his Senate years versus believing what a liberal Senate colleague or liberal editorial page writer charged, Link invariably chooses the most liberal, anti-Helms viewpoint.
Link frequently views Helms through a one-dimensional, racial prism. He attributes racial motivations, inevitably devious ones, to many of Helms' positions, and ignores all evidence of Helms' actual racial record of fairness and equal treatment - such as running one of the most integrated and racially diverse television stations of his era or hiring the first black American, of any party, on the professional staff of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.
Is it any wonder that Link's book is applauded by like-minded liberals, especially in academia, the media, and the Democratic Party (three groups Helms frequently battled)? Those who opposed Senator Helms' conservative philosophy, Christian faith, and support for traditional values will, no doubt, be heartened by this re-hash of presumptions about the Senator's motives and actions with the same, predictable chorus of critics, most with their own agendas. Note, for instance, how many of Link's sources (just skim the footnotes for confirmation) are liberal editorial writers and columnists, or liberal, usually Democratic, politicians, with whom the conservative Republican Helms frequently clashed. Link's interpretations continually put Senator Helms' actions in the most negative light, falsely concluding that courageous or controversial positions were taken in order to seek political advantage, when, in fact, he was standing against the prevailing winds, even earning the moniker "Senator No."
Jesse Helms was recognized during his Senate career, even by political pponents, as a creative legislator (and master parliamentarian) motivated by principled positions - invariably conservative ones, with which Link should just admit he disagrees. Helms was also renowned throughout his lifetime for his directness, candor, and honesty, traits that Link's version of events attempts to displace.
Link fails even to consider that Senator Helms' actions and motivations came from this core set of deeply-held convictions on principle - principles upon which our country was founded - such as the importance of personal responsibility, private property rights, and limited government.
Those wanting to fuel their own propensities toward a liberal leaning will, undoubtedly, find the book full of the examples they may find fulfilling to accomplish that purpose.
But a more thoughtful reader seeking a deeper insight into one of the late 20th Century's most courageous and controversial politicians - with even a modicum of biographical objectivity or historical context - will come away deeply disappointed.
This book gets one star, only because Amazon doesn't offer a lower rating.