There’s not much to recommend the stretch of U.S. Highway 74 that slices through the town of Wingate near the southern border of North Carolina. Gas stations and fast-food joints—the common clutter of small-town America—line the roadside. But across the highway from Wingate Alternator and Starter Repair and a Hardees restaurant sits a handsome white mansion, and inside are photos, plaques and mementos that chronicle the remarkable political career of a local boy made good: Jesse Helms. To the right of the entranceway is a desk similar, they say, to the one the senator works at in Washington, and on the desk lies a Bible open to Psalm 97:
N NORTH CAROLINA
Clouds and darkness are round about him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.
A firegoeth before him, and burneth up his enemies round about. Helms is a devout Baptist, and so would no doubt find sacrilegious any suggestion that the words of the Psalm might apply to him and the uncompromising way he conducts his politics. But 25 years after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, the exhibits in The Jesse Helms Center on Highway 74 bear witness to his enduring influence in American political life. Far from being a fading figure, he is, at age 75 and in his fifth term as senator, more powerful than ever as the imperious chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee.
He has pushed U.S. foreign policy firmly to the right—most recently forcing a shakeup at the United Nations and a major reorganization of the state department. And, of course, he has turned the screws on Cuba’s Communist government, and countries like Canada that allow their citizens to do business with it, by fathering the Helms-Burton Act.
This summer, he has again flexed his muscles by effectively vetoing President Bill Clinton’s choice of a new U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
William Weld—ex-governor of Massachusetts, student of Mexican affairs and a member of Helms’s own Republican party—would seem ideally suit-
ed to the job. But he failed Helms’s ideological litmus test on drugs, abortion rights and other issues, and so the senator blocked his appointment by the simple expedient of refusing to hold a hearing on the nomination, as the American system requires. Weld, he said acidly, is not “ambassador quality”—partly because he favors the medical use of marijuana under some circumstances. Helms argues that Weld’s support for it disqualifies him from representing the United States in a country where drug trafficking is a major issue. Weld fired back, angrily accusing Helms of “ideological extortion.” In itself, such a squabble over a mid-level diplomatic post would be little more than a summertime diversion. But it starkly underlined Helms’s determination to get his own way— even at the cost of setting off a damag-
Jesse Helms flexes his conservative muscle
ing fight between factions of his own party.
All of that has won Helms the grudging respect of many who oppose his bedrock conservative values, as well as the obeisance of those who simply recognize him as a power that must be reckoned with. The coffers of the Helms centre swell with contributions from corporate donors eager to express their appreciation for the senator’s career. A parade of the powerful makes its way to tiny Wingate to speak at the centre and at Wingate University, the nearby Baptist college that Helms briefly attended. Henry Kissinger, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, even the Dalai Lama—all have made the trek to pay tribute to Helms’s power. The most recent was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who pulled out all the stops to woo Helms: she gave him a T-shirt bearing the gooey slogan “Someone at the state department loves me,” and was photographed actually holding hands with the senator.
Helms’s fans on the right are ecstatic. The
Weekly Standard, Washington’s hottest conservative magazine, proclaimed “The Ascendancy of Jesse Helms” in a recent cover story. “Next to Ronald Reagan,” wrote executive editor Fred Barnes, “Jesse Helms is the most important conservative of the last 25 years... Helms has been a magnetic force on ideology and policy, pulling the entire national debate to the right. Positions he noisily took in Washington two decades ago, almost alone, are now part of mainstream conservatism.” Among them, noted Barnes, are such rightwing mainstays as a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, a flat tax on income, school prayer, and tougher curbs on abortion. How does he do it? By refusing, concluded Barnes, to play the standard political game of deal-making and popularity-seeking: “Helms has gained strange new respect not as many conservatives have—by moving left. Helms has earned it the hard way—by not moving at all.”
Helms does not spend much time defending his views in the news media. He came to prominence in North Carolina as a hardright television and radio commentator in
the 1960s, defending traditional values and opposing the black civil rights movement. But he long ago concluded that what he scorns as the “liberal media” will not give his views a fair shake. When a reporter asked him recently about Weld’s chances of becoming ambassador to Mexico, Helms did not bother to elaborate on his position, but threw back a phrase in Latin: uRes ipsa loquitur.” The thing speaks for itself.
The Helms Center, too, speaks for itself, and suggests some pointed lessons about the man it honors. It was founded in 1988 to house Helms’s Senate papers, and to “promote the principles of traditional values, democratic government and free enterprise.” Since 1994, it has been housed in the mansion on Highway 74, where visitors are greeted with a 9 '/-minute video that proudly notes the nickname that Helms won by blocking any measure that met his disapproval: “Senator No.” On the desk is a big red rubber stamp, a gift from Helms’s staff, that also proclaims “No.”
Editorial cartoons on the walls make it clear that Helms revels in his role as the scourge of liberals. Photos show him with such conservative icons as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Chinese dissident Harry Wu. There are awards from the World Anti-Communist League, the Chilean navy and Christians for a Better America. There is a hooded green sweatshirt emblazoned with “Jesse Helms, Commander, Afghan Freedom Fighters,” and a framed copy of the Helms-Burton Act. Other messages are more obscure. What can it mean, for example, that among Helms’s books on display in the centre is a copy of The Canadians by Andrew Malcolm, tucked between a conservative polemic entitled Humanism Exposed! and Capital by Karl Marx?
Among the things the centre does not show is where the money comes from. Past donors have included the governments of Kuwait, which gave $140,000 in 1991, and Taiwan ($310,000 in 1993). The centre no longer solicits foreign donations, and Helms insists that they never affected his actions. “You can’t influence me; nobody can except the truth,” he said last fall when the foreign funds became an issue during his successful campaign for re-election. And in a state that is the biggest American producer of tobacco, it is no surprise that major corporate donors have included tobacco companies like R. J. Reynolds ($1,042,000) and Philip Morris ($278,000). The centre has assets of $8.3 million, and is raising another $2.7 million for a new building to house Helms’s vast Senate archives and a so-called free enterprise hall of fame.
John Dodd, the centre’s president, says Helms is a “humble man” who agreed to the centre only because supporters talked him into it. Humble or not, he has become a fixture on the national political scene despite some obvious handicaps. He never finished college, is not a polished speaker, dislikes
campaigning, and comes from a state that is less conservative and less fundamentalist than some others in the South. Those who have followed Helms’s career say he succeeded for two reasons: he rode the wave of conservatism that erupted in reaction to the social changes of the 1960s, and he was among the first to use sophisticated techniques of political marketing. His traditional values, they note, did not stop him from taking advantage of the latest tricks of the politician’s trade. “He was always a step ahead,” notes Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “He built his own political machine before a lot of people realized we had moved from party politics to personal politics.”
In fact, Helms was among the first politicians to master both television and directmail fund-raising, which allowed him to tap into a national network of conservatives instead of relying only on supporters in North Carolina.
Carter Wrenn, a Republican political consultant who worked closely with Helms from the mid1970s until the early ’90s, recalls how the senator relied heavily on an organization Wrenn built up called the National Congressional Club (later renamed the National Conservative Club). At its peak, it was sending out five million letters a year to conservative Americans, pushing Helms as a bulwark against liberal change and receiving millions of dollars in return. That freed Helms from relying on either his party or the media. His campaigns put most of their effort into tough, negative TV ads—while Helms himself made few personal appearances.
Still, says Wrenn, who broke with Helms in the early ’90s after a personal dispute, the most sophisticated techniques cannot explain five straight victories. “Jesse’s got guts,” he says. “Like him or not, you’ve got to admit he doesn’t duck a fight. He’s got a bit of the barroom brawler in him.” Helms became the most uncompromising conservative in the United States with a national audience. He is an unbending anti-Communist, whose fierce opposition to the Castro regime won him the admiration and financial support of Cuban exiles in Florida and culminated in last year’s Helms-Burton Act. Countries that trade with Cuba earn only his contempt. He tweaks Europeans by pointedly reminding them that American troops have come to their rescue twice this centu-
ry, and he had his spokesman tell Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy that he should apologize to the American people because Canada did not line up with Washington against Castro.
Helms also pushed Christian moral issues: opposition to all abortion, to gay rights, and to public funding for what he called “degenerate art,” such as the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. And unlike some other old-style southern politicians, such as George Wal-
lace in Alabama and Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, he never publicly disavowed his early support for segregation. He loudly opposed making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Jan. 15 a national holiday, and was a strong ally of the old apartheid government of South Africa. He still gets almost no support among the 22 per cent of North Carolina’s voters who are black. His victories are always narrow—53 to 55 per cent. “He doesn’t win over his opponents,” says Wrenn. “He polarizes.”
Helms’s recent success has been particularly frustrating for Harvey Gantt, the man who challenged him in both 1990 and 1996. Their matchups were classic battles of opposites: Gantt is a liberal African-American with a string of civil rights firsts behind him. He was the first black student to attend South Carolina’s Clemson University in the 1960s, and became the first black mayor of the booming North Carolina city of Charlotte. He is an architect with a thriving commercial practice—a shining example of the so-called New South. Gantt’s supporters hoped that the state’s changing demographics would help him win: hundreds of thousands of professionals from the north have flocked to its high-tech industries. But both times, he lost out to the Old South, at least as
represented by Helms. Analysts say that what Gantt’s camp missed was that most of the newcomers were Republicans. “Jesse may not be their kind of Republican, but at least he’s a Republican,” says Wrenn. “They support him because they dislike him less than his opponents.”
Gantt, naturally, has reflected at length on Helms’s appeal. “People think he’s out of touch, but he’s really very much in touch with the people of North Carolina—at least the 52 or 53 per cent who vote for him,” says Gantt. “He does what every little guy who thinks like him would like to do: stand at the gap and keep out the people they think are trying to change things for the worse. Jesse Helms represents exactly that kind of defiance.” Helms’s campaign played the race card against Gantt in 1990 by running TV ads showing a pair of white hands crumpling a job application form while a voice attacked racial quotas for jobs. Many have called him a racist, but Gantt will not: “I shy away from calling anybody that. Let’s just say that Jesse has never failed to use any form of wedge issue or divisive issue to advance his point of view. And that leaves a legacy of bitterness.”
Now, Helms has taken his stand against Weld’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and few expect him to yield. Weld went so far as to resign as governor of Massachusetts on July 29 to press his fight for the position (and, say some analysts, to position himself for an eventual bid for the presidency). What infuriates his supporters is that Helms will not even allow the foreign relations committee to hear Weld out, but simply refuses to hold a hearing. All 45 Democrats in the Senate signed a petition urging him to compromise, as did eight Republicans. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading Republican, went so far as to say that Helms was acting like a “dictator.”
The fight will stretch into the fall. The Clinton administration has promised to keep pressing for Weld’s nomination once the Senate returns from its summer recess in September, but few observers expect Helms to lose. Weld flouted the accepted rules of behavior for confirmation hearings by publicly defying Helms, and the White House has more to lose by offending him than it does by letting Weld’s nomination die. The result is a messy squabble between moderate and conservative Republicans—one that delights Democrats and underlines the power of the man who is proud to call himself “Senator NO.”D
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