Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina died on Friday. And in the barrage of obituaries that have emerged, one of the most praiseworthy things mentioned is "he stood by his principles."
For others, that was always the most negative thing about the man.
Before Rush Limbaugh had his "Ditto Heads," Helms was the poster boy for right-wing politics. He opposed abortion, Communism, Medicaid, gay rights and even civil rights. He held Fidel Castro's feet to the fire and by calling for roll call votes in the Senate held the feet of his opponents to the fire as well. And though he never recanted much of his earlier, often-harsh rhetoric, he did soften around the edges as he aged.
But for a legacy, Helms will forever be remembered as a man who put his principles above all else even practical concerns. He struck people as someone who would rather lose than compromise. When the lions on the right demanded red meat, he was happy to toss it to them. And the scent of racism sometimes lingered in the air after his podium-pounding speeches.
Yet he was willing to let others have their say as well, which made him a special breed, a type the United States may not see again.
Some hated him.
Some loved him.
Some feared him.
Some challenged him.
But whatever people's stance, at some point they had to deal with him.
He was never an easy read. Like Ronald Reagan, Helms was known for being generous beyond bounds on a personal level, yet hard-nosed and unyielding when some wanted to see such generosity codified into law.
When he left the Senate, he had become the embodiment some would say the caricature of the blustery Southern senator with a knack for grand pronouncements. Today he stands with another Jesse Jesse Jackson as one of the bookends for American politics in the late 20th century. In the future, few politicians will ever again have the luxury or the nerve to voice the opinions voiced by Jesse Helms without paying a serious price for the indulgence.