they leave office at the beginning of 2003, U.S. Senators Strom
Thurmond (R., S.C.) and Jesse Helms (R., N.C.) will share a combined
78 years of senatorial service. They will also share a legacy: Converting
the "Solid South" to the GOP, protecting Carolina textiles
and tobacco, and earning reputations as two of America's most staunch
But when Strom
Thurmond shuffles off to chase the nurses at Walter Reed hospital,
his departure won't send so much as a ripple across the American
conservative movement. Jesse Helms's departure — announced Wednesday
afternoon — will leave an unfillable vacuum.
You don't have to like Sen. Helms to acknowledge that he has been
an effective and uncompromising bulldog for conservative issues
in Washington. Indeed, people who loathe Jesse Helms — the Washington
and media elites who view him as an unrepentant Neanderthal — acknowledge
that he's one tough hombre.
Why, that might
have been the exact phrase William Weld used when Helms successfully
killed his nomination to become President Clinton's ambassador to
Mexico. In 1997, the Massachusetts Republican resigned his governorship
to go to Washington to fight for his nomination, which Helms opposed
because of Weld's liberal stance on drug policy.
When Weld arrived
in Washington to take on a single, septuagenarian senator, newspaper
headlines blared: "President Clinton Says He Will Stand By
He hasn't been
heard from since.
this, and his overall willingness to fight, have made Helms a conservative
icon. When segregation began to wane, Helms's Carolina counterpart,
Strom Thurmond, went home to make new friends. But since his election
in 1972, Helms has been defining himself by his enemies. He once
sang "Dixie" to fellow senator Carol Moseley-Braun — attempting
to make her cry, she claims. After winning reelection in 1996, Helms
exclaimed "There's going to be six more years of torment for
been one of Helms's favorite foils. During a Senate hearing at which
Sen. Kennedy made an impassioned plea to allow foreign AIDS patients
to immigrate to the U.S., Helms said: "Let me adjust my hearing
aid. It could not accommodate the decibels of the senator from Massachusetts.
I can't match him in decibels or Jezebels
to define himself by his opposition to liberalism runs contrary
to the current Republican strategy, which is to blur the differences
between Left and Right and accept moderated liberal proposals. George
W. Bush confronting taxpayer-subsidized photos of homoeroticism
as "an abyss of slime to placate people who clearly seek or
are willing to destroy the Judaic-Christian foundations of this
republic" is unimaginable. Indeed, is there any Republican
U.S. senator who would?
came to prominence in North Carolina broadcasting televised editorials
on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, editorials that eventually ran on radio and
in print across the state. His first media job came, ironically
enough, from an FDR program called the National Youth Administration,
which got him a position in "sports publicity" at Wake
Forest paying $18.75 a month. Eventually, Helms ended up on WRAL-TV
in Raleigh, denouncing the big government social programs, liberals,
hippies, and civil-rights activists who helped define North Carolina
(and America) in the 1960's. Long before Rush Limbaugh, Helms was
on the airwaves dismissing the University of North Carolina (UNC)
as the "University of Negroes and Communists."
This is one
of the disturbing legacies of Jesse Helms. Though you won't see
it mentioned in the media coverage of his retirement, Helms was
in fact an avowed and unapologetic segregationist. As a campaign
worker, he helped elect segregation candidates before his own run
in 1972. Unlike neoconservatives who espouse state's rights on principle,
despite any unwanted outcomes on racial issues, Helms backed state's
rights specifically because he wanted states to have the right to
segregate. If Helms's position on 1960's civil-rights legislation
has changed since then, he hasn't mentioned it.
good ideas are not destroyed by bad purposes. And Jesse Helms is
also the kind of man who, after reading newspaper accounts of a
9-year-old orphan with cerebral palsy, would take the boy into his
home and raise him as a son. (The Helms's also have two daughters
and seven grandchildren.) Reporters who cover him regularly and
those who work with him closely say the imaging of a frowning, dour
puritan with an angry scowl is off the mark.
But Helms true
political gifts are his consistency and his willingness to fight.
He still bristles at the idea that his views have softened in his
later years, telling supporters at events in the 1996 campaign "It's
the same Jesse." He's always believed in outspending his opponent
and running negative, two pillars of modern politics that he pioneered.
Soon after his election, Helms was mailing four-five million pieces
of political mail a year to conservatives across the country through
his National Congressional Club (now the National Conservative Club).
No other senator was using direct mail at that level, and Helms
used these supporters to raise the millions he needed to defeat
well-known Democrat opponents like former NC Gov. Jim Hunt in 1984
and Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in '90 and '96.
Most of the
post-Jesse coverage has focused on a handful of social issues like
homosexual policy and public funding for the arts. These are talk-radio-friendly,
"pop" issues, but they aren't the foundation of the Helms
legacy. "Senator No" really made his mark in foreign policy,
promoting anti-Communist regimes (even when they were dictatorships)
and supporting freedom fighters in places like El Salvador.
to foreign affairs was populist and unabashedly pro-American. This
ran counter to the liberal establishment's post-national, global
view of world politics, and Helms forced his opponents — Republican
and Democrat — to define the American interests in the internationalism
As Walter Russell
Meade put it in the New York Times earlier this year: "While
hating Jesse Helms remains a parlor sport in Georgetown, Cambridge
and Manhattan, a longer view of American history would demonstrate
that Jesse Helms is a necessary part of the process: If he didn't
exist, America would have to invent him."
is that principled opposition from conservatives is necessary to
build broad support for policies — particularly international policies
— advanced by liberals. When Senator "No" finally relents
on a missile treaty or U.N. action, the typical man-on-the-street
American can believe that his interests have been protected. For
nearly 30 years, Helms has served as the conservative's canary in
the mineshaft on foreign-policy issues.
It's an interesting
idea, one that begs the question: Where are we going to find a principled
conservative after Helms is gone?
wing of the conservative movement will be left to the able hands
of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, but he lacks the passion on social issues
to replace Helms. On social issues, people like Sen. Sam Brownback
(Kan.) and Rick Santorum (Penn.) have shown some willingness to
mix it up, but don't look for them to denounce the "extremist,
radical, pro-homosexual agenda" any time soon.
may find the retirement of Sen. Thurmond a terrible loss, but for
conservatives who believe in unapologetic ideological confrontation,
Jesse Helms's departure may be the end of an era. For the moment,
perhaps even an entire movement.