Sunday, July 06, 2008

Jesse Helms: Pundit to Pol

by John Gizzi
Posted: 07/05/2008

Mr. Helms running for Senate in 1996.
Photo: Alan S. Weiner for The New York Times

Upon hearing the news July 4th that Jesse Helms had passed away, conservatives remembered and hailed the former senator from North Carolina. Certainly, HUMAN EVENTS readers felt that they had shared Helms’ three decades in the Senate (1972-2002). Not only had those years and all of his rock ‘em, sock ‘em campaigns been chronicled but HUMAN EVENTS had begun carrying the young Helms’ editorials back when he was a television commentator in Raleigh in the early 1960’s.
Whatever the cause—from opposition to the SALT II and Panama Canal treaties and federal funding for salacious art to keeping his colleagues in session over holidays to stop a gasoline tax increase—the senator was more often than not leading the charge. Indeed, a case can be made that with the exceptions of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the figure most pivotal to the success of postwar conservatism was Jesse Helms.
When he retired from the Senate in ’02, Helms was hailed by opposite numbers such as Irish rocker Bono and Sen. Joe Biden (D.-Del.), who now wields the North Carolina Republican’s old gavel as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Their disagreements with Helms notwithstanding, they praised him as a man of principle and a gentleman.

So, of course, did his colleagues on the right. Former Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R.-NH) said Helms had the force “of the United States Marine Corps.” Paul Laxalt, former senator from Nevada and Ronald Reagan’s closest political friend, recalled how the Californian had lost three straight primaries to Gerald Ford in 1976 and then finally scored an upset in North Carolina—a result that brought him within a whisker of Ford at the national convention in Kansas City that year and paved the way for his election in 1980.
“Allied with us in North Carolina were Senator Jesse Helms and his legion of supporters,” wrote Laxalt, “Without Jesse and his people in North Carolina, Ron would never have become President.”
Former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R.-Col.), however, gave Helms the highest compliment of all, hailing the North Carolinian as “the greatest senator.”
My friend Marc Rotterman, a political consultant in North Carolina who worked closely with Helms for many years, does an outstanding job in chronicling the senator’s achievements in office in an accompanying article. For my part, my life was enriched by knowing and reporting on longtime HUMAN EVENTS subscriber Helms for twenty-nine years.
But there are two other sides of Helms that perhaps should get some attention. So many staffers on Capitol Hill I knew felt they should have the job their boss had. Many tried to win it, but few were successful. And many of my colleagues in the press—particular those in the television side of it—have let me know they are brighter than the elected officials we cover and could do the job better if elected. The problem was that more often than not, those who ran weren’t elected.
Jesse Helms was a former Hill staffer and a television newsman who did make it in electoral politics in a big way. As a young radio reporter in 1950, he worked part-time on the campaign of conservative Willis Smith in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senator against moderate Frank Porter Graham. After Smith won the Democratic nomination (then tantamount to election in the Tarheel State), he took Helms to Washington with him as his administrative assistant (what the top aides to Members of Congress were called before they all became “chiefs of staff.”).
At a time when Senate staffs were small and senators did not think there was anything wrong with sharing a meal with staffers in the cafeteria, Helms would have lunch with freshmen Sens. Richard Nixon (R-Cal.) and Joseph McCarthy (R.-Wisc.). Helms admired McCarthy tremendously and the two maintained a correspondence after Sen. Smith died suddenly in 1951 and Helms went home to North Carolina.
In 1961, after a decade as lobbyist for the North Carolina Bankers Association, Helms was made an offer by A.J. Fletcher, owner of WRAL Radio (where Helms worked as reporter before going to Washington. “[Fletcher] bestowed on Helms a piece of the action, several highfalutin titles, and editorial control of a five minute daily ‘Viewpoint’ one-man television commentary to be run over Capitol Broadcasting Company’s television station in Raleigh,” wrote Wayne Greenshaw in “Elephants in the Cottonfields.”
For twelve years, Helms’ trademark drawl and horn-rimmed glasses would be seen daily by an estimated 100,000 viewers statewide. In addition, he had a radio program carried on seventy country-westerns stations. His fellow North Carolinians would tune in and see Helms shaking his finger at Congress for passing too many social reform programs, blasting Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and proclaiming that it would have been a better world if Joe McCarthy had been allowed to clean all the Communists out of government.
“My family would tune in just to see which of the liberals Jesse was going to drive crazy that night,” recalled my friend Jim McIntyre, a native North Carolinian who was later active in Republican politics. “We’d watch him on the news, listen to his radio show. We loved him!”
“One of Us”
That kind of passion McIntyre recalled was critical to Helms becoming the first Republican from his state to serve in the Senate.
By the time he was nearing fifty in 1971, Helms had been a lifelong Democrat, like most of his contemporaries in North Carolina. When his twenty-one year-old daughter came to him to discuss her pending wedding that year, she also asked her father: “Will you tell me why you’re staying a Democrat? You never vote for a Democratic nominee.” Helms changed his registration to Republican. A year later, he gave in to the pleas of his poker-playing buddy, attorney Tom Ellis, and became the Republican candidate for the Senate.
Helms’ hard-hitting commentaries and years on the airwaves were critical to his defeat of Democrat Nick Galifanakis in the Senate race. As Helms biographer Ernest Furgurson wrote of the ’72 campaign: “Accompanying reporters heard it over and over: ‘I’m a strong Democrat, but I’m sure going to vote for you because you used to tell it like it was [as a commentator].”
Running on the slogan “He’s One of Us,” Helms slammed Galifanakis as a liberal in the mold of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. He won, with 54% of the vote, overtaking the Democrat by 118,000 votes. Helms also was helped by an appearance on his behalf by old luncheon friend Richard Nixon, who swept the state by 616,000 votes in his re-election bid as President. (Nixon apparently did not mind Helms’ commentary the previous year in which he likened the President’s trip to China to Neville Chamberlain going to Munich to appease Hitler).
As political scientists Merle and Earl Black wrote in “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” “Helms carried the traditional Republican vote in the mountains and western Piedmont cities, swept the rural and small-town textile counties in the southwestern part of the state, and began to penetrate Democratic strongholds in the east.”
Those voters in Eastern North Carolina were soon dubbed “Jessecrats.” In four more trips to the polls, they would help see their man through to victory—more often than not, with his margin bigger than polls indicated, as the mainstream media’s portrayal of Helms appeared to discourage voters from saying they were for him.
When he made his last appearance at a Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in ’02, Helms was introduced by the Republican who hoped to succeed him—Elizabeth Hanford Dole. The senator was such a family friend that when his colleague Bob Dole asked Mrs. Hanford for her daughter’s hand in marriage, she replied that he would have to get the permission of Sen. Helms (He did). “If I am successful this year, I will succeed him,” Elizabeth Dole told a cheering audience, “But no one can replace Sen. Jesse Helms.”
That said it all. No one has.

- John Gizzi is Political Editor of HUMAN EVENTS.

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