Former Sen. Jesse Helms: A Life in Unusual Review

Posted August 12, 2005 at 3:36pm

For years, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the so-called “Senator No,” was one of the most lightning-rod members of the world’s most exclusive club, waging high-profile showdowns over everything from National Endowment for the Arts funding to diplomatic appointees.

On Aug. 30, Helms, who retired from Congress in 2003, returns to the national spotlight with the release of his memoir “Here’s Where I Stand.”

It’s an odd title for a publication about a man in his twilight years, seemingly more suitable for a book timed to promote a national campaign or launch a comeback career.

But Helms, now an octogenarian, was never one to slink quietly into the shadows. And in the book, he shows no signs of relinquishing his fighting edge.

During his time on Capitol Hill, the North Carolina Republican, who lives in Raleigh and last year celebrated the christening of Liberty University’s Helms School of Government, was one of the Senate’s most skilled operators.

The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spills plenty of ink refreshing readers’ memories about his efforts to oppose abortion and support school prayer, and his disagreements with the Clinton administration and State Department over a gamut of foreign policy issues. His changes of heart are few, with the exception of funding for efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic in Africa, which he began supporting toward the end of his Congressional tenure due to the influence of Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, and U2’s Bono.

For a man of his stature, Helms’ writing, which alternates between generic textbook-like riffs on the state of American politics and personal reminiscence, is disappointingly thin and rife with clichés. (To be fair, among the current political class, Helms is hardly alone in this shortcoming.)

Paragraphs are flung onto the page with little thought to continuity or cohesive narrative — Helms tacks on a half-dozen or so sentences about Margaret Thatcher to the end of one chapter on Ronald Reagan, almost as an afterthought. And a good editor might have caught needless repetitions (on one page the reader is reminded no less than three times by Helms that President Bill Clinton’s reluctance to get behind missile defense legislation cost the nation’s future defenses eight years of progress).

There are some notable bright spots, however. Helms’ recounting of how he wooed his future wife, the former Dorothy Coble, with “cola and peanuts” is genuinely engaging and heartwarming. His pen displays similar verve when the topic turns to Reagan. Helms, who backed Reagan over President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primary, clearly views the late president with schoolgirl-like adoration.

“Who could ever forget the first time they met Ronald Reagan?” he gushes, going on to reference the Great Communicator’s “inimitable smile” and “twinkling eyes.”

But as with any good crush, feelings are delicate. When, during the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan announced his selection of the more moderate George H.W. Bush as his running mate, Helms was miffed. (At the time, he viewed Bush as too liberal for his taste. He soon changed his views.) Reagan tried “several times” to phone him, Helms writes, but Helms took his time before returning the calls. “I was not ready to talk to Ron,” he huffs in the book.

Meanwhile, a chapter titled “Snapshots from the Senate: Fellow Senators” gives only a cursory look at some of the chamber’s most storied Members. It’s amusing to learn, however, that Helms played a role in facilitating the courtship between his Senate colleague Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who would go on to succeed Helms in his Senate seat.

The issue of race is a touchy one and, it seems, still a point of contention for Helms, who reiterates throughout the autobiography that he is “not the least bit racist.”

“I did not advocate segregation,” he writes, adding that non-southerners misinterpreted opposition to some civil rights laws as evidence of “hostility toward blacks.”

“That simply was not true,” he writes.

Helms, however, has a long record of criticizing the civil rights movement and voting against civil rights legislation. According to a report in the Raleigh News and Observer, after the Ku Klux Klan killed a black Detroit woman in the 1960s, Helms, then an editorialist for WRAL-TV, asked, “How did the rage of these men become so great as to prompt them to commit such an outrage?” and then went on to attribute the KKK’s violence in part to “deliberate provocation.”

It’s a theme Helms builds on in the book, blaming “outside agitators” for “the stirring of hatred, the encouragement of violence, the suspicion and distrust. We do know that too many lives were lost, businesses were destroyed, millions of dollars were diverted from books and teachers to support the cost of buses and gasoline.”

Helms explains his opposition to legislation creating the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday as springing from the contents of King’s sealed FBI records that Helms believes would have “shocked most Americans,” and King’s habit of promoting “discontent” and surrounding himself with Communist advisers. Meanwhile, Helms’ work for the 1952 presidential campaign of then-Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), a noted segregationist, gets only two passing references.

Helms, a former journalist, reserves some of his most pointed criticism for the “liberal media.” It’s noteworthy, then, that Helms relates how as a news director at a FM radio station, he personally asked the owner for permission to air a last-minute series of commercials aimed at encouraging Willis Smith, the more conservative candidate who had finished second in the Tar Heel State’s 1950 Senate Democratic primary, to call for a runoff. (Apparently, such cross-pollination between politics and the media is acceptable when the politics in question are to Helms’ liking.) And after Willis’ victory in the general election, Helms headed to Washington as his Senate aide.