AUSTIN, Texas -- I am indebted to Jon Stewart of the Comedy Channel and to "The Daily Show," the last real news program on cable television, for the idea of a collection of quotes from Sen. Jesse Helms:

-- On the subject of President Clinton visiting North Carolina: "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard."

-- "I'm going to sing 'Dixie' to her until she cries," of Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun after a debating her on the merits of the Confederate flag."

-- "The New York Times and The Washington Post are both infested with homosexuals themselves."

-- "The destruction of this country can be pinpointed in terms of its beginnings to the time that our political leadership turned to socialism.

They didn't call it socialism, of course. It was given deceptive names and adorned with fancy slogans. We heard about New Deals, and Fair Deals, and New Frontiers, and Great Society."

Years ago, Larry L. King, the Texas writer, observed in the wake of the political defeat of a couple of unusually unpleasant Texas congressmen, Birchers both, that, "It is not enough that we rejoice over their electorally recumbent forms, but we need to add a few swift kicks while they are down."

Of course I was appalled -- the most un-liberal sentiment I ever heard. As King himself observed, we liberals weep copiously over everyone from milk-shy Hottentots to the glandular obese. An old and ailing Jesse Helms is not one to crow over. But nor is it necessary to forget -- in the wake of all this folderol about how he was "a man of principle" -- what those principles actually were.

Helms has been anti-black, anti-gay, anti-woman and anti-progress. He was perfectly willing to use his power for partisan nastiness and for petty provincial politics. His main claim to fame is that he protected Big Tobacco and his home-state textile industry. I have liked a lot of outspoken conservatives over the years. Helms is not one. I give him this, he never had good hair. A fine example of the 16th-century thinker. Onward. I don't know how the political world looks to you, but it seems to me in my lifetime liberals have been right about three important things. We were right about race. We were right about Vietnam. And, by 1980, when our deficit was $50 billion dollars(!) under Jimmy Carter, I thought: " Gosh, maybe we should let the conservatives run things for a while. At least they understand the bottom line."

Two trillion dollars of debt later, I was not quite so persuaded. That was the last time I ever thought the conservatives should be in charge. Plus ca change: Bush has now blown the entire budget surplus on this huge tax cut for the rich. The silliest line of commentary is this phony wringing of hands and wailing, "If only we had known three months ago what we know today!"

Of course we knew three months ago there was going to be no surplus. We were quite regularly told so by an enormous array of experts. Bush went from saying we needed a tax cut because times were so good to saying we needed a tax cut because times were so bad.

I am a great admirer of John Maynard Keynes, who first pointed out that government needs to spend more money during recessions, but there is a difference between frittering money away on tax cuts for the rich and using the public's money for public purposes of lasting benefit to all. If Congress wants a public works program, here's one suggestion. Somewhere between one-third and one-half of all the public schools in America are between dilapidated and falling apart (many of them in rural areas as well as inner cities). This is not a problem addressed by mass testing. To put money into schools is a sound investment of public money, it pays off in the future, and you don't have to do it again for quite some time. That would in turn give the ever-pressed school districts more leeway to hire more and better teachers.

The three things we know work to improve the schools are smaller classes, longer school days or school years and well-equipped classrooms. The physical plant of schools is not, of course, as important as good teachers. But until we figure out a way to clone good teachers, we know fixing the windows, walls, roofs, floors, wiring and plumbing will do much good.

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