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Jesse Helms' legacy is today's politicking

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 23, 2001

Whenever a North Carolinian is out in the world meeting people, the polite small talk is usually about the state's beautiful mountains, or its awe-inspiring Outer Banks, or maybe college basketball.

But sooner or later, the Tar Heel's new acquaintance works up the nerve to ask:

"How in the WORLD does your state keep electing Jesse Helms?"

Usually implied by the tone of this question is that (1) the senior senator from North Carolina, who announced his retirement on Wednesday, is a bug-eyed troglodyte, and (2) only a state of tobacco-farming racists would elect him.

The truth is a lot more complicated. Anybody who dismisses Jesse Helms in such one-dimensional terms is missing a big chunk of what has happened in America over the past four decades.

Helms' significance is twofold:

His role in the conservative resurgence. Helms was one of the first and most effective Republican politicians to tap into deep middle-class and blue-collar resentment over civil rights, Vietnam protesters, hippies, drugs, liberal government and the perceived decline of American values. He represents a historical bridge between Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. You can make a strong case that without a Helms there could not have been a Reagan.

His role in modern attack politics and strategy. Thirty years ago Helms was inventing or perfecting many of the current hallmarks of American politics, such as direct-mail fundraising and negative campaigning. Helms mastered the use of Senate rules to delay or block, while forcing his colleagues to take unpleasant votes that he later used against them. He established a conservative infrastructure of think tanks and training grounds for a new generation.

Along the way, Helms mocked and outraged government-funded artists, advocates for gay rights ("homersexuals," he pronounced it), U.N. supporters, civil libertarians, atheists and the general universe of pointy-headed liberals. They loved to hate him in return, and at times he seemed to relish it. He covered his walls with hostile editorial cartoons.

Few of his opponents understood that Helms has always operated on more than old-style, race-baiting Southern demagoguery. Politics to Helms is nothing less than good battling evil, a struggle for the soul of America.

"I don't think that the creation of this country was an accident, just a blip in the history of man," Helms told me in a lengthy interview in 1982, after he already had been in the Senate for a decade. "I think it's because those guys (the Founders) said, "Lord, you help us.' And he did."

I asked Helms: Must one be a Christian to be a good American?

"No," he said, rolling the question around in his mind. Then he added, cheerfully: "But it helps."

Helms is a great politician, even charming in person. Few who spend time with him fail to comment on his courtesy -- "courtly" is the usual adjective. Helms can listen to the most invective-filled diatribe, thank his guests, apologize for not being able to agree with them, and then promise to pray that he soon will find a subject on which he can.

Sticking up for the tobacco price-support program never hurt him, either. Until it became utterly unfashionable, Helms began meetings in his office by offering everyone a Lucky Strike.

In his third decade in the Senate, Helms sometimes has seemed softer around the edges. He waged a famous detente, almost a mutual flirtation, with Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. More recently, he met and pronounced himself favorably impressed by the rock musician Bono. He even played gracious host to a U.N. delegation. None of this changed his basic principles.

Helms first made his mark back in the 1960s as a fiery television commentator in Raleigh. He was an acid counterpoint to the stormy decade. He lambasted "Negro agitators" and "moral degenerates" and "student mobs" and opposed the outlawing of segregation in places of business. He stuck up for the National Guard at Kent State.

"In short," Helms told his audience, "what is needed is a revolt against revolution."

In 1972, Helms upset an urban, liberal Democratic candidate for a vacant Senate seat. Then he branched out. His fundraising organization, the Congressional Club, ambushed North Carolina's other senator, Robert Morgan, in an astoundingly vicious campaign. The Congressional Club went national and helped conservatives get elected everywhere. Had Reagan not revived his collapsing 1976 campaign in North Carolina, you could argue that Reagan four years later would not have happened. In the majority, Helms blocked Reagan appointees that he considered weak, and supported almost any tinhorn dictator who called himself anti-communist.

In 1984, in an epic showdown, Helms trounced the popular Democratic governor, Jim Hunt. He has been untouchable since, no matter that pollsters breathlessly predict a close race each time. More Tar Heels vote for him than admit it. He has never stopped playing on resentment against affirmative action, gay rights and other liberal afflictions.

How did Helms get re-elected? He got re-elected by being a unswerving ideologue yet a charming politician. He got re-elected because half the time, North Carolina assuaged its uneasiness by electing a Democrat to cancel out his vote. Most of all, he got re-elected because a lot of people were mad. You can argue all day that they were wrong to be mad, that they were backward or unsophisticated to be mad. But they were mad anyway, and anybody who ever thought it could be wished away with a big-city smirk and a roll of the eyes was wrong. This is what Jesse Helms knew.

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