Interviewer’s Note: Jesse Helms was born in 1921, and was elected to the Senate in 1972. He served there five terms, or 30 years. He is now in retirement on his North Carolina soil. This week, Random House released his memoir, Here’s Where I Stand. Earlier in August, Helms answered questions by e-mail, from his office in Raleigh. A version of the below Q&A appears in the current print issue of National Review. Only one question did he decline to answer: concerning the handicapped son he and his wife adopted in the 1960s. It is said that Helms won’t be giving interviews anymore. If so, a rare and memorable voice will be silenced.
Did you ever think you’d live to see the end of the Cold War?
I surely hoped and prayed that I would. After all, the Cold War was a comparatively recent aberration in the sweep of history, and I was convinced that the desire to be free would be more powerful than the grip of Communism.
Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Reagan? Gorbachev? Some combination of factors?
The Soviet Union collapsed because Ronald Reagan exposed its true weakness, the lack of support the Soviet government had from the people they claimed to rule. Reagan’s firmness in refusing to back down to the blustering of Gorbachev and supposed Soviet power gave all those citizens who wanted to be free of their tyranny the courage to stand up and demand their freedom. Gorbachev could see which way the tree was falling and was smart enough to jump out of its way before he got taken down, too.
Did you think the West would be tough enough to face down the Soviets?
This was exactly why we needed a Ronald Reagan and not a Jimmy Carter in the White House. Of course the West was and is tough enough to face down any form of tyranny or terror. But we must have leaders who have the same kind of backbone their freedom-loving citizens have. Appeasement and negotiation have never worked in overcoming evil. We can face down any threat with strength and steadfastness.
What should we do about Castro, if anything?
Castro is a chronic problem, contained on his rusting-out island and constantly afraid of his own people and their hunger for freedom. Just last month he rounded up a group who dared to hold a public meeting to mark their traditional Independence Day. It is a tragedy that he would rather have his people suffer than accept the help of his neighbors to deal with the aftermath of the hurricanes that have swept Cuba in the last year. But, his days are short and one way or the other true freedom will soon return to Cuba.
In some quarters, you are considered anti-black. What do you say?
Of course I am not anti-black, and any number of African-American friends and Capitol Hill staffers who have known me over the years would be happy to set that record straight. I have always been opposed to violence from any quarter; to unconstitutional quotas; and to politicians who try to rob people of their ability to dream their own dreams and reach their own goals through their own efforts by selling them the lie that they can’t succeed without the government running their lives. I have always believed that the American Dream is the birthright of every American and that the free-enterprise system is the route to secure that dream.
Any regret over the “crumpled paper” ad, which caused so much hollering? [In his 1990 reelection campaign, Helms ran a TV spot that showed a man crumpling a letter informing him that he had been denied a job, because of race preferences.]
What a tempest in a teapot. This very short-run ad was about quotas and my opponent’s support for a bill that was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcry was just one more attempt to change the subject from the issues to race. I chose to run on the issues.
The American South today: Is it fully part of America, completely reconciled? Is the Civil War over, mentally, culturally?
Let’s see–the fastest-growing spectator sport in America is NASCAR. Country-music stars pack stadiums everywhere they perform. The last two presidents of the United States have been from Arkansas and Texas. And two of the biggest banks in the country are headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’d say the South has pretty well recovered from a dispute that took place over a hundred years ago. Of course, if Hollywood keeps serving up stereotypes of country bumpkins with bad accents, we may have to retaliate.
What do you think of George W. Bush? Does he remind you a little of yourself?
I think George W. Bush is a principled man and has proven his determination to do what he thinks is best for the country without worrying about his popularity. In person he is both warm and personable and I have been happy to support him when I could.
What did you think of Reagan?
Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of my lifetime. It was my privilege to count him as my good friend.
Who were the most interesting people you met in your political career?
This question would require a second book! It is simply impossible to single out the most interesting. Maybe it was my early training as a journalist, but I’ve found every person I ever met has some quality that makes him or her interesting and unique as a person. Sometimes you have to dig a little harder, but everyone has a story of interest.
Did you have favorite colleagues? Unfavorite colleagues?
Certainly Ron Reagan and Margaret Thatcher rank among my favorites, but among fellow senators I’d include Hubert Humphrey and Jim Allen and Joe Biden and Orrin Hatch and Pat Moynihan and so many others retired or currently serving, or sadly no longer with us. [James Browning Allen was a senator from Alabama, who died in 1978, while in his second term.] Senators do indeed form solid friendships built on our mutual commitment to serve our Country.
The less favorite colleagues provided challenges of their own. Sometimes, like in the case of Paul Wellstone, who came to Congress determined to dislike me, we became personal friends even if we still disagreed on the issues. Other times, we didn’t, but we could still respect the fact that we were there because the people of our home state elected us and we could respect their choice by our civility to one another.
What do you regard as your greatest senatorial achievement?
This is not a question I can answer. History will handle it. I can tell you that my wife thinks that one of the most important changes we helped bring about was to make roll-call votes a routine. When senators had a voting record that the voters back home could examine, they could no longer talk one way during the campaign and vote another in Washington. Those voting records helped send a lot of liberals into early retirement.
You were known as “Senator No”–what did you think of that nickname?
I was tempted to send a thank-you note to the newspaper that first called me by that name. I enjoyed being known as Senator No because it summed up my purpose in helping to stop a lot of bad government policies and proposed laws.
Do you feel the War on Terror is as tough a challenge as the Cold War?
The War on Terror is every bit as tough a challenge as the Cold War, probably more so because those who oppose us are ideologues who are not interested in our defeat so much as they are our demise. But, as I said earlier, that does not mean this war is any the less winnable. We will win if we do not give in to those who would try to appease the enemy.
You were the only one who stood up for that Ukrainian sailor, Medved, who jumped off that ship. The Reagan administration dragged him back. You were accustomed to taking lonely stands, weren’t you? Did you ever embolden others? Or did they all hang back?
I was not the “Lone Ranger.” Our opponents often tried to paint that picture, but the fact of the matter was that there were always others who were willing to stand for what was right. Different individuals came forward to join in different fights and there was always strong support from the people who mattered, the citizens of the United States. They let me know by the thousands that they were standing with me on those tough issues. By the way, that Ukrainian sailor is a Christian minister now and we had the opportunity to meet when he came to America to visit the Capitol as a free man.
Some people knocked you for not traveling around. Do you feel this hampered your understanding of the world?
The people who made these comments didn’t know the facts. I’ve traveled extensively to Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Europe throughout my life and my Senate career. In 2001 I took the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to Mexico for its first meeting on foreign soil. What I did not do is make these trips at government expense or to make a big publicity show, so it was assumed by people who didn’t bother about knowing the truth that I did not have firsthand knowledge of world issues.
In addition I had trusted staff members who served as my eyes and ears around the world and close friendships with world leaders and foreign nationals who made sure I had the best information available about the issues in their countries.
Far from being hampered, my approach to fact-gathering made sure I wasn’t getting the spin version of those issues that is too often a part of those well-known political junkets.
The abuse directed your way seemed to roll off your back. Did you ever feel it? Did your critics ever get to you?
Harry Truman said it well: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Some of the biggest laughs I ever got were from political cartoons that were intended to ridicule me.
Of course I don’t like to be lied about. But I know the truth and the truth always wins out.
What has your marriage meant to you?
Meeting and marrying Dorothy Coble was and to this day remains the best part of my life. She is my best friend and the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. We have been blessed in every way with three loving children and wonderful grandchildren who make us proud of their every accomplishment.
Did you enjoy participating in politics–campaigning, speaking, sparring, all of it?
I did not enjoy the campaign trail and I never considered myself an eloquent speaker or debater, but I was always happy to set out conservative ideas in a way folks could understand and appreciate.
Who are your favorite political writers, if any?
I’m partial to the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Favorite figures from American history?
My favorite figure from American history is Thomas Jefferson.
What do you wish the American people could know about you, or about themselves?
I suppose what I would like people to know about me is what I would like them to know about themselves. We are blessed to live in the greatest country in the history of the world. We live in a nation founded on the belief that all of us are created equal, that all of us have God-given gifts and all of us have the opportunity to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That opportunity often comes disguised as hard work, but that hard work has rewards that are worth far more than money in building character and setting priorities.
I grew up during the Great Depression. I needed three jobs to support myself in college. I had no inheritance beyond the example of faith, hard work, and honesty. But I lived in the United States of America, and my father–who served as both chief of police and fire chief in a small southern town–lived long enough to see his youngest son sworn in as a United States senator.
In America my story can be anybody’s story, and that is the most important lesson we can teach ourselves and all of our children. We have no limits if we partner our dreams with our willingness to work for them.