Farewell to the Helmsman

During his 22 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms has had a fairly simple political philosophy: the only sovereignty that matters is America's own. Now Helms is no longer chairman and may soon be out of a job. But he leaves behind a storied legacy as latter-day America's quintessential isolationist-interventionist.

In relinquishing his Republican allegiance last May, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont did not refer explicitly to the senior senator from North Carolina. But it is hard to imagine that he did not have Jesse Helms somewhere in mind when he spoke of his former party’s conservative extremism, and the end of Helms’s six-year reign over the Foreign Relations Committee is one of the most salient results of the post-Jeffords alignment.

It is slightly too easy to say that Helms, who may not seek reelection next year, is a man one will miss. True, he enjoyed giving the impression of the three Cs — courteous, colorful, yet curmudgeonly — as if playing a Dixie boss in some remake of Advise and Consent. (A one-time smoker himself, he would never forget to say "’Preciate it" when anyone lit up a fine tobacco product in his presence.) However, the other big C, the Confederacy, not cancer, somewhat qualified this effect. It was Helms who ran, with the help of political consultant Dick Morris, the notorious "white hands" TV spot in the election of 1990, showing two gnarled Caucasian mitts crumpling a rejection letter from an employer who had perforce selected "a minority" hire. Nor was the dignity of the deliberative body much enhanced when Helms began yodeling about the land of cotton in a Senate elevator in 1993, in order, as he put it, to make Carol Moseley-Braun, the Senate’s first female African-American member, cry.

Apart from his lifelong Senate role as chief whip of the Old Right (he began political life as a local radio broadcaster inveighing against the Red-inspired civil rights movement and didn’t hire a black staffer until well into the 1980s), Helms’s two most conspicuous interests were the preservation of America’s splendid isolationism and the blocking of nominations. Who can forget his long attack on the Kissinger Commission on Central America for its role in spreading socialism throughout the isthmus? Or his dogged campaigns against the United Nations, the Kyoto Protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the treaty to ban land mines, and the International Criminal Court? Then there was his adamant opposition to the ambassadorship of the liberal Republican William Weld and, somewhat earlier, his deep and dark suspicion of the nomination of Richard Burt to be an assistant secretary at the State Department. I actually attended the hearing in 1982 when Helms made an issue of Burt’s supposed relationship with a female writer for the New York Times. "It ain’t over," he growled, "until the fat lady sings."

In a typically unctuous article for the Times last April ("Why the World Is Better for Jesse Helms"), Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Walter Russell Mead made two mistakes. Posing as an anti-elitist, he said that "hating Jesse Helms remains a parlor sport in Georgetown, Cambridge and Manhattan." Leaving aside the way in which former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her spokesperson Jamie Rubin — popular in all three locations — had fawned on Helms during the second Clinton administration, Mead might have cared to collect opinions among, say, black voters in the Raleigh-Durham area. His second mistake was to say that the Senate needs to reflect the anti-internationalist temper of a large segment of American opinion.

That is not a mistake in itself, of course. But did such a worldview have to be expressed in a parochial, chauvinist, and philistine manner? On the Senate floor in 1995, Helms introduced Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as "the Prime Minister of India" and five minutes later said he had had "a delightful hour-and-a-half" conversation talking about India. In March 1995, reading a prepared statement on North Korea, he had some harsh words for a man named "Kim Jong Two." Embarrassed staffers spun this as a pun on the monarchical succession from Kim Il Sung but took care to annotate Helms’s next script with the phonetic spelling "Kim Jong ILL." Like a champ, the old warhorse got to this passage and declared: "We are entitled to know the nature of President Clinton’s commitment to North Korean dictator Kim Jong the Third."

Two years previously, he became pugnacious during the confirmation hearings of Pamela Harriman to be ambassador to France. Ever suspicious of supranational authority, he opened one line of questioning like this:

Helms: "I know that you are involved in the Monnet Society. Monnet, of course, was one of the spiritual founders of the European Community?"

Harriman: "Senator, I do not think I am involved in the Monnet Society. I have never heard of it, frankly."

Helms: "I believe the information submitted says that. Is that not correct?"

Harriman: "Oh, it is Claude Monet, Senator. It is the painter — the artist. His home is in France. It is called Giverny, where he lived and painted. And I have given a contribution to help restore his home."

Perhaps there were a few refined titters in Georgetown that evening. And what about when, in November of the same year, Helms wanted to know why Washington had recognized the "murderer" Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti:

Warren Christopher: "Our support for him is based on the fact that he won a democratic election…"

Helms: "So did Hitler."

Christopher: "…with about 70 percent of the vote — "

Helms: "So did Hitler."

Of course, as Christopher might have pointed out, the Nazi party never won an electoral majority (though, even without this legitimizing formality, it did enjoy considerable "understanding" among American isolationists).

The fundamental mistake made by Mead was to view Helms as a kind of reincarnation of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican majority leader who made himself so indispensable to the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine and who is remembered for one of those untrue truisms that pepper the conversation of the supposedly wised-up. (The same Washington hand who will inform you, as if for the first time, that "all politics is local" is liable to instruct you that "politics stops at the water’s edge.") Of course, politics ever since at least the War of 1812 has begun with "water’s edge" questions: witness other pseudo concepts such as "the Vietnam syndrome." And the celebrated distinction between interventionist and isolationist turns out upon examination to be a distinction about whether or not to intervene in Europe, or in wars being fought by others. The old "isolationists" were all for an American empire in the Philippines; Pat Buchanan may have thought the Second World War a snare and a delusion for the United States, but he was 100 percent for intervention in Nicaragua. Senator Helms’s own Weltanschauung, to employ a word that he would avoid, has always been of this sort. There is even an act that bears his name, enjoining European and other nations from doing business with, or in, Cuba. Not much hydrophobia there; the water’s edge is no deterrent either to extreme partisanship or extreme meddling in the affairs of other states.

In a January 2001 address to the American Enterprise Institute, Helms made this notion explicit by praising President George W. Bush’s "faith-based" domestic policy and saying that "this ‘compassionate conservative’ vision must not stop at the water’s edge." He went on to laud the export, via aid programs in the Third World, of American-style Christian fundamentalism. Thus the work of Billy Graham’s son Franklin, in defending Christians in the Sudan, gets much praise while the work of the Graham missions to North Korea does not. (Senator Helms has not, in the era of Kim Dae Jung’s "sunshine policy," relaxed his dire views of the wisdom of negotiating with Kim Jong Il.) On Cuba, the senator took credit for the existence of the new administration, saying that thanks to Bush’s support of the embargo, "Cuban-Americans recognized the real thing when they saw it, and they turned out in record numbers to support him in Florida — giving Mr. Bush the margin that secured Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the White House." The italics, as well as the highly inventive concept, are in the original.

And naturally, Helms is a devoted supporter of national missile defense (NMD). He publicly told Clinton last year that he would be wasting his time in renegotiating the ABM treaty. He is unimpressed by Russian apprehensions but considers the United States to be more immediately threatened by countries with missiles yet unbuilt. In a way, the mentality of the NMD partisans is a perfect fusion of isolationist and interventionist psyches: We can build a shield over "our" country while reserving the right to intervene at will around the globe. In this way, the parochial and the imperial instincts are jointly served. Helms makes the perfect representative for this unashamed policy of having it both ways.

The same mentality is on show when it comes to human rights questions. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must be overthrown, to be sure. But the United States must exempt itself from the Rome Treaty on war crimes and refuse any definition of universal jurisdiction. Helms is never more eloquent and angry than when raising, for conservative audiences, the illusory threat of American soldiers being led off in chains by pesky bleeding-heart international lawyers. The fact is that the comparison of Helms with Senator Vandenberg is wrong (even if that senator does have an NMD proving-ground base in California named after him). The political antecedents of Jesse Helms are, aside from Jefferson Davis, to be found in an unholy synthesis of William Jennings Bryan and Charles Lindbergh. I say "unholy" perhaps unfairly: Helms continues to lard his speeches with references to Armageddon and with flattering references to the television-evangelical faction. It is undoubtedly this element of missionary zeal — including the opportunity to do overseas what is impossible in the United States and forbid funding for family planning and abortion by fiat — that has energized his interest in international charity. Here again, the provincial ambitions can be dovetailed, however crudely, with the interventionist and activist ones.

This unsubtle "America First” duality helps explain what is sometimes misunderstood as a mellowing on the senator’s part. Let us agree that, in the late autumn of his career, he did show some symptoms of, well, softening. Helms consented to a compromise on back dues owed by the United States (and shortly thereafter enjoyed the unprecedented opportunity to take the podium at the United Nations). He affected elaborate gallantries with Albright. He sponsored a cordial joint meeting with the Mexican Senate’s equivalent committee, perhaps relieved by the reflection that there is no "water’s edge” between the United States and Mexico. And he became positively moist about debt relief for poor nations, succumbing to the appeal of Bono and his band U2 by agreeing to attend his first and only rock concert. (Pointless to speculate whether he thought Bono to be a member of a well-known Republican House dynasty and the band a spy plane devoted to aerial reconnaissance of our unsleeping foes.) It would therefore only be generous to concede that little became his tenure as chairman like the leaving of it. But also, it is only fair to observe that his newfound political standing, in the eyes of some, has resulted from his, at any rate partially, ceasing to be himself.

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