I think you can get a clearer picture of what made Helms unique — and how he came to be respected by millions both inside and outside his home state, often to their surprise — by considering the story of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s visit to the United States in 1975. Solzhenitsyn was a hero to Helms. After just one year of service in the Senate, Helms introduced a resolution to make Solzhenitsyn an honorary American citizen. It failed in the House. Then Helms helped to arrange a Washington visit for the exiled Soviet dissident the following year. At every turn, he faced obstruction by key figures in the Ford administration, led by secretary of state Henry Kissinger. When, thanks to the diligent work of Helms’s staff, Solzhenitsyn was indeed brought to the country, Helms tried to set up a meeting for him with President Ford.
Not only was he rebuffed, but the State Department even forbade its employees to attend Solzhenitsyn’s major speech (to the AFL-CIO). So what did the freshman senator from North Carolina do? He went to the floor of the Senate, called it a “sad day for our country,” and accused Ford of “cowering timidity for fear of offending Communists.” It was a public-relations disaster for the White House. Among the conservatives angered by the administration’s parade of limp-noodle lickspittles was Ronald Reagan, who lambasted Ford in his newspaper column. Trying to rectify the situation, the White House approached Helms about a meeting with Solzhenitsyn, but refused to issue a written invitation for fear of supplying tangible evidence of caving in. Lacking such an invitation, Solzhenitsyn refused.