Former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms died on Friday at age 86. National Review Online gathered former Hill staffers and admirers to identify his legacy.
Andrew E. Busch
Jesse Helms should be remembered, first and foremost, as one of a rare breed of politicians who simply did not care what the New York Times said about them or about the wider world.
When he thought the State Department was not taking a tough enough stand, he had no problem playing hardball, even when there was a Republican president.
He did not hesitate, either, to make big campaign issues out of hot cultural concerns that polite liberals preferred to sweep under the rug – as in 1990, when he won a close race for reelection partly by focusing voters’ attention on the injustice of racial preferences.
Helms helped remake the South into a Republican bastion on the basis of a strong defense, unwavering anti-Communism, and cultural conservatism.
He was sometimes a bit rough around the edges even for his allies, who wondered whether his bare-knuckle tactics were so stark that they might alienate some of the voters conservatives were seeking to persuade. Whatever reservations any might have harbored, conservatives were glad to have Jesse Helms on their side. In the end, he showed that one could challenge the pretensions of the Left in the most vigorous possible way and thrive politically anyway. It was undoubtedly this proof that most infuriated the CBS newsroom.
– Andrew E. Busch is an associate professor of political science at the Claremont McKenna College.
I first met Sen. Jesse Helms under less-than-auspicious circumstances. The Reagan White House had just announced my nomination to become staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which, at the time, was a high-profile agency that had been a constant thorn in the administration’s side. No doubt my selection seemed an inexplicable choice: I was a Democrat and, at the time of my nomination, was a top assistant to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Helms’s staff was loaded for bear at my first interview, grilling me for what seemed like hours. But when I went in to see Sen. Helms, he was the epitome of a southern gentleman, courteous, even courtly. If he had any misgivings, he never let me know — at least not then. It was only later when I ran into him at a social event that he let on how worried he’d been about my appointment. By that time, the New York Times and Washington Post were excoriating me on their editorial pages for the anti-quota direction I and my fellow Reagan appointees at the Civil Rights Commission had taken the agency, which, of course, had removed any doubts he might have had.
I later found out that my experience was far from unique. One well-known feminist told me how taken aback she was that Sen. Helms was friendly, even kindly, when she met him one-on-one. He took his politics seriously, but he didn’t use political differences as an excuse for bad manners. The same can’t be said for many of his adversaries.
– Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity.
Michael G. Franc
Today’s conservatives remember and admire Sen. Helms above all for his independence of spirit and unwavering dedication to principle. Along with colleagues such as Bill Armstrong of Colorado, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and Phil Gramm of Texas, and maybe one or two others, he seemed entirely at ease and at the top of his game when he confronted Washington’s many liberal establishments.