Just over a decade ago, Rob Christensen set out to answer “how a state could be represented by John Edwards and Jesse Helms at the same time.” When his ensuing book was published, Edwards was a top-tier presidential contender, and Helms was basking in the afterglow of a career as a conservative icon. North Carolinians of various stripes took pride in the two most prominent senators they’d had since Sam Ervin. Today, most thoughtful citizens look back on Edwards and Helms as embarrassments.
“How you like them apples?” Jesse Helms, then a three-term member of the United States Senate, would ask (male) bystanders while holding up copies of Robert Mapplethorpe’s famously homoerotic photos. In the mid-1990s, Helms winked at a racist caller to a late-night TV show, saying he “didn’t think” he’d used racial slurs since his youth. Progressive pranksters raised a giant inflatable condom above Helms’s house in Washington, D.C. The Rutgers historian David Greenberg would label Jesse Helms a “backwater buffoon,” and though it hurts to hear our beloved state referred to so derisively, one can hardly disagree with his characterization of this execrable politician.
But as a embarrassment to North Carolina, Helms had nothing on John Edwards. The “son of a mill worker” never took his public duties particularly seriously. He had barely gotten settled in the Senate when he began angling to become Al Gore’s running mate. Months after Gore’s defeat, Edwards trekked to Iowa to prepare for a presidential campaign of his own. His first campaign failed, but that didn’t deter him at all from revving up for a second bite at the apple. It was in that effort that he became an infamous disgrace.
Relaxing in the lobby of a luxurious New York City hotel, Edwards caught the eye of one Rielle Hunter. This airy-fairy new age guru entranced Edwards with flattery, feeding him fantasies of being the next Robert F. Kennedy or (I am not making this up) Martin Luther King, jr. They consummated their middle-aged romance with a sex tape, which Edwards inexplicably shared with a troubled sycophant named Andrew Young. Not long after, while Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was battling breast cancer, it was revealed that they had conceived a love child. None other than the National Enquirer exposed Edwards’ caddishness, and his favorability rating would eventually plummet to 3%.
So: North Carolina has often been embarrassed by the men it elected to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. This is to say nothing of pig farmer Lauch Faircloth or clownish third-rate Huey Long impersonator “Our Bob” Reynolds. Embattled present-day incumbent Thom Tillis can take solace knowing that he has not made North Carolina look quite as bad as some of the men who have held his seat. Still, for all the awfulness that such people as John Edwards and Jesse Helms have brought forth, no senator has ever been quite as pathetic as Tillis.
Tillis began his career with a certain balls-out bravado. When he first assumed the Speaker’s gavel, he warned that Republicans would deliver a “gut punch” to liberals like the North Carolina Association of Educators. Addressing a Republican gathering in Eastern North Carolina, he bloviated that Democrats would never take back the General Assembly. Later, as dissent mounted to Tillis’s “conservative revolution,” he dismissed protesters’ discontent as “whining coming from losers.”
From all that machismo, Tillis is now a desiccated popped balloon of a man. Donald Trump has subjugated him. Reports have it that the president taunted Tillis at a recent Republican fundraiser: “You didn’t like me at first, admit it,” Trump jeered. “Admit it, you like me now.” Tillis squirmed “uncomfortably” as his newfound idol put him through the ringer.
Unlike his colleague Mark Meadows, Tillis is not a stupid man–he earned $500,000 a year as a consultant at IBM–so one suspects he’s ashamed of himself on some level. He may never make the tabloids like Senator Edwards, but in his case, he surrendered his dignity with a pained, forced smile.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.