Politics & Policy

Remembering a Patriot

Jesse Helms, R.I.P.

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.

Linda Chavez

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.

How many tough-talking conservatives win elective office to, as the saying goes, represent the goodness and wisdom of their constituents to Washington only to “go native” and gradually find themselves representing the conventional wisdom of Washington to their constituents? Not so with Sen. Jesse Helms.

And it’s a good thing he stood firm against the Beltway’s elite opinion. Helms, after all, was so often proven right. He was as prescient as President Reagan on the inherent evil of Communism and on the need to defeat, rather than merely contain the Soviet Union. The idiocy and incompetence of the United Nations motivated him to push for a much-needed (and, alas, still pending) overhaul of Turtle Bay. The anti-Americanism that all too easily seeps into the DNA of the State Department led him to mount a similar reform effort aimed at Foggy Bottom. And Helms understood that the then-burgeoning HIV epidemic would be contained only when public-health authorities came to their senses and deployed all the tools used routinely to control other sexually transmitted diseases (i.e., confidential reporting and partner notification) to control the spread of HIV.

None of these crusades endeared Helms to those elites. In fact, they almost seemed designed to trigger an earlier version of what we now call Bush Derangement Syndrome. Remember the reaction when he tried to rein in the National Endowment for the Arts?

Another legacy he leaves is that principle always — always — trumps partisanship, especially when it is one’s own party that is abandoning a core value. If one can uphold a core principle only by standing up to one’s own party leaders, then so be it. It is hard, for example, to imagine Sen. Helms standing idly by these last few years as Hill Republicans earmarked their way to minority status.

It is a legacy our current crop of conservative lawmakers would do well to ponder.

– Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.

Doug Heye

When I interned in his office in 1991, Sen. Helms suffered from Paget’s Disease. Because he was not allowed to carry heavy objects, I brought his unusually heavy briefcase into his office each morning. Unless he was in a meeting or on the phone, he would never simply offer thanks. “Sit down, young fella,” he would say, asking about my experiences in his office and his 1990 campaign, school, family or — old sports reporter that he was — the previous night’s baseball game.

“I don’t understand how a nice gentleman from North Carolina such as yourself can support a team called the Yankees,” he joked.

When I mentioned reading Richard Nixon’s memoirs, he obtained an autographed picture of Nixon for me and was thrilled when I brought it into his office. Later, he invited all of the interns to meet him after the weekly Senate Republican Conference lunch to meet Vice President Quayle. It was heady stuff for a 19-year-old. It still is.

In our conversations, I tried soak up as much history (and John Wayne stories) as I could. At the time, I thought I must have made some kind of positive impression on the senator for him to spend so much time with me.

Over the years, however, I learned there were countless young people who had similar stories. That’s just who he was; he was the nicest man.

Rest in peace. 

– Doug Heye served as communications director for Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), among other campaign and Hill roles.

Jay Nordlinger

When I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich., all conservatives were hate figures. And Jesse Helms was the Most Hated of All. In time, I left Ann Arbor far behind, mentally. And I grew to appreciate and value Jesse Helms.

He understood Communism — he had Communism’s number. And that was the most important issue of his age. All those who sneered at him, degraded him — they did not have half the understanding that Helms had.

About everything concerning the Cold War, Helms was right. His critics and enemies were horribly wrong.

He also had the U.N.’s number. And the socialists’ number. And the universities’ number. (Pardon the redundancy.) And he had a very strong moral sense.

When a Ukrainian sailor named Medved jumped ship off the American coast, the only person in all the world who cared about him was Jesse Helms. U.S. authorities — under Reagan, no less — dragged him back to the Soviets, kicking and screaming.

And, as I understand it, Senator and Mrs. Helms adopted a supposedly unadoptable boy. When I interviewed him in 2005 — for the interview, go here — this was the only subject he declined to address. Modesty and humility ruled.

I don’t know that he was completely innocent on race. I doubt he was especially guilty — particularly for a white southerner born in 1921. And, about affirmative action — a.k.a. race preferences — he was 100 percent right.

He had the courage of his convictions, which is not enough, of course: Those convictions were right. Jesse Helms was courageous, right, and good. That is a powerful combination.

– Jay Nordlinger is a National Review senior editor.

David Rouzer

Jesse Helms helped change the world. He understood that America was created for a purpose, and he believed in the strength, ingenuity, and generosity of the American people. When others were willing to compromise with brutal tyrants, he stood firm for freedom and liberty — inspiring both those who lived in freedom, and more importantly, those who did not. He had the courage to stand his ground and do what he felt was right, rather than succumb to the temptation of political expediency. Such courage is why he supported Ronald Reagan in 1976 when many thought Reagan’s campaign was obsolete. It is why he argued against liberalism when few dared to tackle it head-on. It is why he was unflinching in his opposition to Communism.

Not only was Jesse Helms a great statesman, he took great pride in helping others. He never lost sight of protecting the interests of the people whom he was elected to represent; he tackled every problem brought to the office by a constituent as though it was his own.

Jesse Helms will be remembered as one of America’s great patriots. He was a true gentleman who served for all of the right reasons. It is only fitting that he joins two other great patriots, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, in exiting this world on the Fourth of July — and not by coincidence. 

– David Rouzer a former staffer to Senator Helms.

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