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Jesse Helms -- Three Appreciations

The Jesse Helms You Should Remember

Jesse Helms

How Jesse Helms Made a Difference

The Jesse Helms You Should Remember

By By Marc Thiessen
July 7, 2008,2008

With the passing of Sen. Jesse Helms, the media have demonstrated one final time that they never fully understood the power or impact of this great man. Consider, for example, The Post's obituary of Helms; here are some things you would not learn about his life and legacy by reading it:

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms led the successful effort to bring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the NATO alliance. He secured passage of bipartisan legislation to protect our men and women in uniform from the International Criminal Court. He won overwhelming approval for his legislation to support the Cuban people in their struggle against a tyrant. He won majority support in the Senate for his opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He helped secure passage of the National Missile Defense Act and stopped the Clinton administration from concluding a new anti-ballistic missile agreement in its final months in office -- paving the way for today's deployment of America's first defenses against ballistic missile attack. He helped secure passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which expressed strong bipartisan support for regime change in Baghdad. He secured broad, bipartisan support to reorganize the State Department and bring much-needed reform to the United Nations, and he became the first legislator from any nation to address the U.N. Security Council -- a speech few in that chamber will forget.

Watching this record of achievement unfold, columnist William Safire wrote in 1997: "Jesse Helms, bete noire of knee-jerk liberals . . . is turning out to be the most effectively bipartisan chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since Arthur Vandenberg. . . . Let us see if he gets the credit for statesmanship that he deserves from a striped-pants establishment." This weekend, we got our answer.

What his critics could not appreciate is that, by the time he left office, Jesse Helms had become a mainstream conservative. And it was not because Helms had moved toward the mainstream -- it was because the mainstream moved toward him.

When Helms arrived in Washington in 1973, conservatives were a minority not only in our nation's capital but also within the Republican Party. He often took to the floor as the lonely opposition in 99-to-1 votes. By the time he became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1995, Republicans were in the majority in the Senate and conservatives were in control of the Republican Party. And Helms was winning floor votes by wide bipartisan majorities.

What made Helms stand out was his willingness to stand up for his beliefs before they were widely held -- even if it meant challenging those closest to him. In 1985, his dear friend Ronald Reagan was preparing for his first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev when a Ukrainian sailor named Miroslav Medvid twice jumped off a Soviet ship into the Mississippi River seeking political asylum. The Soviets insisted that Medvid had accidentally fallen off -- twice. The State Department did not want an international incident on the eve of the summit. But Helms believed it was wrong to send a man back behind the Iron Curtain -- no matter the cost to superpower diplomacy. He tried to block the ship's departure by requiring the sailor to appear before the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he chaired then -- and he had the subpoena delivered to the ship's unwitting captain in a carton of North Carolina cigarettes.

Despite Helms's efforts, the ship was allowed to leave for the Soviet Union with the Ukrainian sailor aboard. Miroslav Medvid was not heard from again until 15 years later, when he came to Washington to visit the man who fought so hard for his freedom. I was working at the time on Helms's Foreign Relations Committee staff and witnessed this emotional meeting. Yes, Medvid told Helms, he had been trying to escape -- that was why he joined the Merchant Marine in the first place. When he was returned to the Soviet Union, he said, he was incarcerated in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The KGB tried to drug him, but a sympathetic nurse injected the drugs into his mattress. Eventually he was released; today he is a parish priest in his native village in Ukraine.

In the course of dozens of interrogations, he told Helms, "the KGB didn't fulfill its desire about what they wanted to do with me. They were afraid of something," he said, "and now I know what they were afraid of." They were afraid of Jesse Helms.

President Bush had it right when he said on Friday that "from Central America to Central Europe and beyond, people remember: In the dark days when the forces of tyranny seemed on the rise, Jesse Helms took their side." This is the Jesse Helms that Miroslav Medvid remembers. Unfortunately, it was not the Jesse Helms written about this weekend.

The writer, the chief White House speechwriter, was Foreign Relations Committee spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms from 1995 to 2001.

Jesse Helms

Wall Street Journal Editorial
July 5, 2008

Since he had to go sometime, Jesse Helms would have liked the idea of dying on July 4. The main cause of his life was defending liberty, especially against Soviet Communism, and so we wouldn't be surprised if he held out to make it to the early hours of our national holiday before dying yesterday at age 86.

Helms was best known as the five-term North Carolina Senator who drove liberals crazy before his retirement in 2002. But his most important role in history arguably took place in 1976, when he and political ally Tom Ellis helped to resurrect Ronald Reagan's fading run for President.

In late March of that year, they pushed the Gipper to make foreign policy more of an issue, including opposition to the return of the Panama Canal, helping Reagan upset President Gerald Ford in the North Carolina primary. Reagan's own advisers had all but given up after a series of primary defeats, but Helms and Mr. Ellis rescued the campaign. The upset nearly propelled Reagan to the nomination in 1976, but, more important, it set Reagan up to be the front-runner in 1980 after Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

As a Senator, Helms was a forceful anti-Communist, resisting Nixon's detente of the 1970s and promoting U.S. support for dissidents behind the Iron Curtain and freedom fighters in Central America. In one episode in 1985, a 22-year-old Ukrainian sailor in the Soviet merchant marine jumped ship near New Orleans and tried to defect. In a shameful moment, the Reagan Administration returned him to Soviet control days before a U.S.-Soviet summit. Helms took up Miroslav Medvid's cause, and the Ukrainian became a priest after the fall of the Soviet empire. On a visit to the Senator's office 16 years later, Father Medvid credited Helms's public agitation with saving him from KGB retribution.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms also tried to reform the United Nations and other multinational bodies, to the extent that is possible. His purpose was to hold those institutions accountable to their own professed principles, which made him unpopular with elites but served U.S. interests. In 2000, he became the first Senator to address the Security Council. His tenacity on this score is missed in today's Senate, all the more so given the blind eye to corruption at both the U.N. and World Bank.

Helms was a conservative populist, and his campaigns were not above demagoguery. He was a protectionist, reflecting the textile interests in his state. He sometimes abused the Senate's advice and consent power against Presidential nominees - a habit the left has now adopted. His critics have a point that he sometimes exploited racial tensions in the post-1960s South, but Helms himself was no racist and his famous TV spot opposing racial preferences in employment in 1990 barely ran in North Carolina.

Like the political shift across the South and West in the last decades of the 20th century, Helms's political rise was a reaction to the collapse of liberal governance. He sought to reassert traditional American values, and above all to defend U.S. freedom against Soviet tyranny. Like Reagan, he saw more clearly than liberals the moral dimension of the Cold War. Like Reagan, he was a hero of that war.

How Jesse Helms Made a Difference

By John Fund

If Ronald Reagan was the sunny and optimistic face of modern conservatism, the uncompromisingly defiant exemplar of it was Jesse Helms, who died yesterday at age 86.

While Reagan has undergone a revisionist makeover by many historians who now recognize his accomplishments, Helms is still the conservative liberals most love to hate. But while they still disdain his views, many liberal groups are now using their own forms of the rhetorical and campaign techniques that Helms honed to perfection.

Jesse Helms was an influential television commentator in North Carolina when he decided to leave the Democratic Party, winning a U.S. Senate seat as a Republican in 1972. He went on to win four more terms, with a reputation as the Senate's most principled warrior on behalf of social conservatism, anti-Communism, limits on union power, and an assertive foreign policy that rejected State Department caution. Like Reagan, many of his views appear to have been validated. Others, such as his blind spot on racial issues and mean-spirited comments against gays were troublesome, but even the stubborn Helms made moves to modify his image in those areas late in life.

Two events early in his Senate career showcased Helms's unflinching nature and his political skills. In 1975, he engineered a visit to the U.S. by Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn over the objections of the State Department, which forbade its own employees from attending a major Solzhenitsyn speech in Washington. State also blocked a proposed visit to the White House, leading Helms to accuse President Gerald Ford of "cowering timidly for fear of offending Communists."

That incident helped spur Reagan to challenge Ford for the GOP nomination the next year. Reagan lost the first five primaries, and he entered the North Carolina contest broke and under pressure to pull out. But Helms and his chief strategist Tom Ellis refused to give up. They employed Helms's huge, direct-mail list to build a grass-roots army of volunteers and raise money to air 30-minute speeches by Reagan across the state.

Emphasizing the Panama Canal "giveaway" and smaller government, Reagan won an upset victory and was able to battle Ford all the way to the GOP convention. He showed such strength at the convention that Ford invited him to deliver off-the-cuff remarks to the delegates. Reagan was so inspiring that some of Ford's own delegates exclaimed, "We just nominated the wrong candidate." Reagan later acknowledged how Helms's intervention rescued his political career.

But that level of success eluded Helms in a Senate where he was almost always outvoted. Rather than seek compromise, he staked out firm positions that attracted publicity for his causes. He was often able to block appointments he considered too liberal and was the first to highlight United Nations corruption, an issue on which he was clearly ahead of his time.

He also stumbled. His anticommunist fervor led him to back authoritarian regimes in Chile and Argentina far more than he should have. His 1983 opposition to a Martin Luther King holiday - he railed against King's associations with communists - was myopic and a throwback to a discredited past.

The issue of race will always cast a shadow on Helms's legacy. He could never understand why he was viewed by many as a bigot, having run one of the most integrated TV stations in the South and often hiring blacks on his staff. His criticisms of affirmative action and forced busing were on the mark. But as conservative scholar John Hood notes, "he failed to marry every criticism of government overreaching with calls for the South's social and moral transformation and clear denunciations of racist business owners."

Indeed, the mainstream media rarely put Helms's career in context the way they did, for example, with Sam Ervin, a Democrat who served with Helms in the Senate from North Carolina before retiring in 1975. Ervin was the leading legal strategist against Civil Rights legislation, and he largely crafted the Southern Manifesto against Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ruled school segregation unconstitutional. But Ervin was the man who chaired the Watergate hearings that helped bring down Richard Nixon, and his views on civil rights were almost never mentioned. Both Helms and Ervin were courtly, principled conservatives. Only one became a cartoon media villain.

Contrary to his reputation, Helms did change his mind. For his first decade in office he opposed aid to Israel and in 1982, after that nation invaded Lebanon, called for "shutting down" relations. But after learning more about Israel's security fears during a visit there in 1985, and receiving assurances that officials there could support some military sales to moderate Arab nations, he became Israel's stalwart ally. "It was a complete switch," recalls Morris Amitay, former executive director of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.

Helms also softened on both AIDS and Africa. He developed an unlikely friendship with the rock star Bono, who convinced Helms to back AIDS funding and alleviate poverty in Africa by channeling more foreign aid through private sources.

But that kind of détente was rare. Most liberals delighted in baiting Helms and he reciprocated: He crowed about how disappointed CBS anchor Dan Rather looked in announcing his upset victory on election night in 1990. But liberals did pay attention to Helms, and gradually adopted some of his methods.

It was Helms who first sent his own foreign policy advisers overseas to second-guess the executive branch's foreign policy. Many liberals have no qualms in doing the same today. One liberal consultant told me he learned from Helms's ability to distill complicated ideas to a level that connected with ordinary people. His mastery of new media techniques and technology convinced many liberals they had to invest in the Internet and build up the passions of their base.

Jesse Helms was a major influence on American conservatism, but his career provides a blueprint for anyone who represents an embattled minority viewpoint. You can, with persistence and unflinching determination, change the political odds in your favor.

Mr. Fund is a columnist for
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