July 5, 2008


The Ascendancy of Jesse Helms (Fred Barnes, 08/11/1997, Weekly Standard)

Next to Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms is the most important conservative of the last 25 years, and episodes like this help reveal that Helms is the most inner-directed person in Washington. He has his own set of priorities, and he doesn't waver. He has a style all his own, too. He's invariably straightforward (invoking a Latin idiom was an aberration). He never softpedals or dilutes his conservatism, even in private. On Weld, the easy course would be to let the nomination sail through, which it would absent Helms's objection. But Helms doesn't shy from tough, unpopular stands. Indeed, his relentless, unswerving application of conservative principles to practically every issue is precisely what has made him a major player in Washington and national politics. Helms follows a simple formula: Implacability equals strength. It works. He can't be buffaloed -- or ignored. Even acting alone, Helms has enormous sway, as Weld has had to learn.

No conservative, save Reagan, comes close to matching Helms's influence on American politics and policy in the quarter-century since he won a Senate seat in North Carolina. Barry Goldwater flamed out after 1964, though he lingered in the Senate until 1987. Newt Gingrich single-handedly grabbed control of the House of Representatives for Republicans, but he hasn't done much with it. Richard Nixon, conservative at heart, got the two big issues wrong by embracing big government and detente. Strom Thurmond has been reliably conservative for a half-century, but not a leader. Jack Kemp altered conservative economic thinking -- nothing more. But Helms has led on everything from promoting human rights in China to opposing gay rights at home. And, at 75, he's still out front.

Now the world is finally beating a path to Helms's door. In 1976, Helms rammed a "morality in foreign policy" plank through the Republican national convention that all but officially ended the Kissinger era in American foreign policy. Earlier, Helms had created an international incident over then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger's decision to bar exiled Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn from visiting President Ford. Yet last fall, Kissinger flew to Greensboro, N.C., to raise money for Helms's reelection. It was his second appearance to aid Helms. Another ex-secretary of state and Kissingerite, Larry Eagleburger, spoke at a Helms rally in Fayetteville. After the election, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered a speech at the Helms Center in Wingate, flying home with a carry-out order of barbecue Helms had bought for her. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations, is working closely with Helms to restore the committee's power and prestige. The point here is that 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.

I have two tests for measuring Helms's impact: the Trent Lott test and the George Bailey test. Let's start with Lott. He and Helms, in their twenties, gained Capitol Hill experience by working for conservative southern Democrats. They were elected to Congress the same year, 1972. The question is, Who has done more, Lott or Helms? Lott advanced through the leadership ranks to become House Republican whip before jumping to the Senate in 1988. He was elected majority leader last year. What has he accomplished? Lott was a capable leader of House Republicans when they were in the minority, and he brokered the deal last year that led to welfare reform, a minimum-wage hike, and the Kennedy-Kassebaum health-care bill. This year, he played a prominent role in negotiating the budget deal with President Clinton. That is about the sum of his major achievements.

The Helms list is so much longer that Helms, who regards boastfulness as a mortal sin, is too self-conscious to recite it. In fact, when I asked him to name his top 10 accomplishments, he declined to name even one. (His aides are less reticent.) But in politics alone, Helms has made history. He's an event- making politician, not merely one who's served in eventful times. He helped make direct mail not only a key fund-raising tool for conservatives but also an alternative medium for the Right. From it came the New Right, the bulging faction of social conservatives without which Reagan wouldn't have won the White House in 1980. Of course, if not for Helms, Reagan wouldn't have been politically viable in 1980 in the first place. Four years earlier, Helms and his sidekick Tom Ellis engineered an astonishing upset victory for Reagan in the North Carolina primary that resurrected his candidacy. Had Reagan lost in North Carolina -- and his handlers were already negotiating to get him out of the race -- his presidential bid would have died early and ignominiously in 1976, and his prospects in 1980 would have been uncertain at best.

Helms has also 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: the balanced-budget amendment, a flat tax, school prayer, curbs on food stamps, legislation banning abortion. In the 1980s, Helms pressured the Reagan administration to intensify anti-Communist activism in Central America, Asia, and Africa and to reject arms-control concessions. And on issues where others turned squeamish, he spoke out. Helms confronted the homosexual lobby in Washington on gay rights, AIDS research, and government sanction of the homosexual way of life. He has paid a price for this. His speeches are picketed by gay activists (he had to slip in the back door of an Atlanta hotel for a fund-raiser last year), and a 15-foot condom was put over his house in Arlington, Va.

Amazingly enough, Helms is an able and resourceful executive who uses his staff to maximize his influence. He delegates rather than micromanages. Most pols, Lott especially, are chronic micromanagers. Given a long leash by Helms, his staffers "have clout beyond what other congressional aides have," says conservative strategist Jeffrey Bell. Thus, in the 1970s, John Carbaugh and James Lucier acted with such audacity in foreign affairs that Helms was accused of operating his own State Department. In the 1980s, Deborah De Moss exerted a powerful influence on Latin American policy. Now, Ellen Bork is becoming a force in foreign-policy debates. Thiessen, the committee spokesman, has found he's free to bludgeon foes. In a TV appearance, Thiessen told Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy he should apologize to the American people for siding with Cuba in the shootdown of two Cuban-American planes. Afterwards, Thiessen feared he'd gone too far and jeopardized his job. Should have been tougher with Axworthy, Helms told him. Once empowered, Helms aides remain close to him after they leave his staff. He has a network of talented lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants ready to assist him at a moment's notice: Carbaugh, Charles Black, Marc Rotterman, Alex Castellanos, Darryl Nirenberg, Steven Phillips, David Keene.

For what it's worth, Helms also has another gift that most politicians lack: He spots new talent around the world. When Margaret Thatcher was a minor British MP in 1974, Helms hosted her in Washington. He gave her office space and arranged appointments for her. In 1989, he met with Boris Yeltsin, whom President Bush and his aides dismissed as a loutish rival to their favorite Russian, Mikhail Gorbachev. Helms was impressed and began to talk up Yeltsin in Washington. In 1989, he learned of Harry Wu, the exiled Chinese dissident, and invited Wu to testify on Capitol Hill. They became warm friends, and Wu has since emerged as an international human-rights hero. During Clinton's first term, Helms admired the gritty performance of U.N. ambassador Albright. After the 1996 election, he urged Erskine Bowles, the White House chief of staff, to prod President Clinton to name her secretary of state. Clinton did, prompting Helms to order his staff never to criticize Albright. Most surprising was Helms's discovery of John Ashcroft, now a rising star in the Senate. Helms traveled to Missouri in 1974 to campaign for Ashcroft for state auditor, sight unseen. He had heard only that Ashcroft was a conservative.

Now for the George Bailey test -- after the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life who was shown what the world would have been like if he'd never lived. Let's narrow the test from a lifetime to the past 12 months. What wouldn't have happened in Washington if Helms had stayed in Raleigh, N.C., as a WRAL-TV commentator?

There would be no pending reorganization of the State Department, in which two agencies will be abolished. There would be no United Nations reform. Richard Lugar of Indiana would be Senate Foreign Relations chairman in place of Helms, and he has minimal enthusiasm for revamping State, folding the U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into it, and emasculating the Agency for International Development. Lugar tried to strip U. N. reforms from legislation appropriating back U.N. dues. He lost 75-23 on the Senate floor.

What's surprising to many is that Helms, neither a detail man nor a lover of process, delved into such cold fare and did it deftly. His reputation as strictly an outside player, harrumphing on behalf of one lost cause after another, may be the received wisdom in Washington about Helms, but it's wrong. Helms calibrates his maneuvering according to how much power he has, and in this case, as Foreign Relations chairman, he has a great deal. He started with an idea. "I became convinced early on that the foreign-policy apparatus was not operated for the American people, but so the striped-pants boys could stick out a pinkie, have a cocktail, and sound profound somewhere around the world," he told me. "When I got to the Senate, I found I was exactly right."

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Posted by at July 5, 2008 6:53 AM
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