Matthew Yglesias wonders why conservatives are affirming that Jesse Helms was a central part of the conservative movement, rather than cautiously distancing themselves from him. Surprisingly, I think the answer is honesty, but this does commit them to saying a raving bigot was very important in the conservative movement.
There’s another important point here, which is that all the recent kerfluffle over whether the southern strategy was central to the Republican party’s success seems harder to take seriously, now that such a prominent conservative’s legacy is in the spotlight. Jesse Helms was hardly the whole of the Republican party for the past forty years, but he was important, wasn’t he?
Followup: “The most eloquent case for Helms was made in 1997 by Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard. “His relentless, unswerving application of conservative principles to practically every issue,” wrote Barnes, meant that “no conservative, save Reagan, comes close to matching Helms’s influence on American politics and policy in the quarter-century since he won a Senate seat in North Carolina.” ” That’s from a 2002 Atlantic article arguing that conservatives should be happy that Helms was leaving public life. I, in turn, got it from Ross Douthat, who disavows Helms in his most recent post.