FROM THE ARCHIVES (Daily Nebraskan columns)
Death comes for the Arch-Villains
Jeremy Patrick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Daily Nebraskan
January 08, 2001
The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the Socket.
--Wordsworth, "The Excursion"
Last Saturday, with the Senate split evenly 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, the two parties announced a power-sharing plan, which will give each some influence over which bills are forwarded by committees to the full Senate.
Therefore, much of the talk and speculation on Capitol Hill and in the media is over the ailing health of the Senates two oldest Republican members: Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.
Since each lives in a state with a Democratic governor, if either one dies, the Democratic Party will have a majority in the Senate. It has become a veritable "Deathwatch 2001."
Its about time.
Strom Thurmond, a mind-boggling 98 years old, is the longest-serving member of the Senate and probably its most conservative member. He's been hospitalized several times in the past few months with various ailments and also has memory problems: He recently claimed in an interview that he was only 81 years old. Thurmond gained notoriety almost half a century ago when he led Southern Democrats in four states to withdraw from the Democratic Party and form the States Rights Dixiecrat ticket. Thurmond was the party's presidential nominee, and what bound the group together was their "violent opposition to any measure of social and political equality for African-Americans." (Hoffman, 1996)
In fact, the major reason the group formed was the Democratic Party's advocacy of military desegregation and civil rights for blacks. In a resolution largely written by Thurmond, the Dixiecrats condemned any efforts "to undermine the racial integrity and purity of the white and negro races alike." In his fire-and-brimstone acceptance speech, he ranted, "There's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
Of course, Thurmond lost the election and the civil rights movement succeeded. Although he has toned down the racist language in the 46 years since he was first elected to the Senate, he has still been a tireless opponent of any legislation that would help minority groups. As Milton said, "Never can true reconcilement grow, / Where wounds of deadly hate have pierc'd so deep."
Jesse Helms, Republican Senator from North Carolina, is also in poor health and was recently hospitalized with pneumonia. A member of the Senate since 1972, Helms chairs the influential Foreign Relations Committee. Like Thurmond, Helms also has a long history of racist, sexist, and homophobic actions (most famously, when he addressed Clinton's nominee for assistant secretary of housing as a "damned lesbian").
Helms is also an ardent isolationist and opponent of the United Nations. Using his position as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has been able to block important legislation relating to international trade and human rights. For example, last Monday President Clinton signed a treaty to create the International Criminal Court, which would try war-crimes suspects. Even though 138 countries have signed it (including Russia, Cambodia, and Israel), Helms has predictably vowed to prevent it from being ratified.
He stated that "protecting America's fighting men and women from this international kangaroo court is one of my highest priorities in the new Congress." (Washington Times, January 1, 2001)
The Helms and Thurmond "Deathwatch" is not just about who will control the Senate; with a majority of 60 needed to break a filibuster, their deaths would probably not have a dramatic effect. More important is what their deaths would signify about our country's past and its future.
Helms and Thurmond are the products of a time when racism and hatred of other minority groups was widespread and accepted. For many Americans, their deaths would be the symbolic end of one of the darkest periods in our country's history.
Although Homer warns us, "It is not right to gloat over the dead," few tears will be shed over their passing.