What Rachel Maddow Didn’t Tell You About Jesse Helms

On Thursday night’s The Rachel Maddow Show, host Rachel Maddow did an excellent job of summarizing the unrepentant racism of the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), the man whom current GOP rising star Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) would like to clone into a 100% racist U.S. Senate. One point of this exercise was to wonder if Cruz would pay any political price for praising this symbol of everything the party says it wants to leave behind (or not), but aside from that salient political angle, there is a media angle that she missed.

I’m not talking about the conservative media, although at least one of their reactions is very telling. The Washington Post‘s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin denounced Cruz for praising Helms, but not primarily because of the racism, conceding only that “any mention of his career expressing admiration for parts of his legacy need to be candid about that and deplore it.”

The real reason Cruz is wrong for praising Helms isn’t that single-sentence aside, but because Cruz “misunderstands Helms’s national security views,” which is a bit like damning Hannibal Lecter because he over-seasons everything.

No, I’m referring to another media angle, one with which Rachel Maddow must certainly be acquainted. During her riff on Helms, she referenced the Senator’s 1990 “White Hands” ad, which is the Daisy of RAF™ political commercials, the standard by which all others are judged. Although it often competes with 1988’s Willie Horton campaign for top racist ad honors, the “White Hands” ad is much more explicit in its appeal. Run during his campaign against Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte, the ad shows a pair of white hands crumpling up a rejection letter, as the narrator says “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”

That ad was produced by Alex Castellanos, who, you may recall, got into a fairly high-profile dust-up with Rachel Maddow on NBC’s Meet the Press. Former Maddow and  current Melissa Harris-Perry producer Jamil Smith said, of Castellanos, “If there was a bridge from the unreserved segregationist era of American conservatism to our current era — when most politicians and their acolytes usually find more polite ways of using race — I’d have to say that bridge should be named in honor of Alex Castellanos and Larry McCarthy,” who produced the Willie Horton ad campaign.

But lest you doubt the “White Hands” ad’s racist bona fides, take it straight from the horse’s mouth. In a 2009 interview with ThinkProgress, Castellanos explicitly admitted that the point of the ad was to exploit his opponent’s race, and implicitly acknowledged its corrosive effect on race relations.

This ad wasn’t a one-off for Castellanos and Helms, either. Castellanos worked for Helms for almost 2o years, after cutting his teeth on Ronald Reagan‘s 1976 campaign. Part of the political angle to this is just how much the modern Republican Party owes to Jesse Helms’ fund-raising operation, which Castellanos built. Incredibly, Castellanos was fired from Jesse Helms’ 1996 campaign because he ran an ad that was even too nasty for Helms.

You may be asking yourself what hidey-hole of shame Castellanos retreated to, if you didn’t already know that Castellanos continued to work on even higher-profile Republican campaigns, including presidential campaigns for George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain. None of those candidates paid a price in the media for hiring Castellanos, aside from the occasional liberal blogger.

That brings us to the present, because it is one thing for Alex Castellanos to find a comfy home in the party he helped create, and which is being drawn back to him like a moth to a flaming cross. It turns out he has also found a cozy spot on mainstream political television, and not just as a regular guest on NBC’s Meet the Press, but as a member of CNN’s “Best Political Team on Television,” where he fits in nicely with fellow Republican Race-etta Stone Newt Gingrich. The subject of Castellanos’ work for Jesse Helms never comes up, no one ever confronts him about it, and it is completely absent from even his own website’s bio.

Jesse Helms’ influence on the modern Republican Party is an important issue, but even more important, in my mind, is the fact that the mainstream media sits politely with the life-force of Helms’ toxic racial politics, and never tells its audience. Everyone knows who Jesse Helms was, and they should know who Alex Castellanos is.

[photo via screengrab]

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