Jewish World Review August 29, 2001 / 10 Elul, 5761
Wrapped in that episode are most of the elements of Helms's extraordinary success as a Republican politician and Senate powerhouse-elements that will be painfully missed when Helms retires in 2002 after 30 years in Washington. Helms is an ideologue, and his unflinching devotion to conservative principles has made him a powerful figure. He's oblivious to the buzz, the chatter, and gossip of the press, pols, and the permanent establishment. He's totally inner-directed. He cares little for details or process. But when something clashes with his conservative views-Weld, say, or the creation of a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, or disproportionate funding for AIDS research-he steps up, no matter how unpopular that makes him. He wins some, loses some, but is always a player to be reckoned with, even when he's acting alone.
To understand Helms, it's useful to compare him with the Washington type who is deemed to have "grown" in office. The latest example is Republican senator John McCain of Arizona. His tactic is to get out in front on issues that are at least superficially popular, often championed by liberals, and stir the interest of the media. So he's jumped onto a liberal patients' bill of rights, gun control, and global warming. McCain has also successfully courted the press and became one of the most highly visible figures in American politics.
Helms hasn't grown at all since his days as a conservative commentator on WRAL-TV in Raleigh in the 1960s and early 1970s. So far as I know, he's changed his mind on only one issue in three decades, dropping his criticism of Israel and becoming a strong supporter. Helms gets out in front on hard-core conservative issues certain to prompt media harrumphing, and he's relentless in pursuing them. A good example is his refusal to approve payment of American dues to the United Nations until its lavish bureaucracy was reformed. He was savaged for this, then got only minimal praise when the U.N. gave in. Nor does Helms woo reporters. He has few friends in the press. He refuses to go on Sunday morning interview shows. The result: He's not all that visible as a national politician.
But his achievements are many. He's imposed reforms not only on the U.N., but also on the State Department. He's single-handedly blocked numerous liberal appointees. During the Reagan years, he bolstered the president's inclination toward anti-Communist activism, especially in Latin America. He's thwarted steps toward normalization with Cuba. He's turned issues such as the cultural excesses of the National Endowment for the Arts into rallying points for conservatives. And when he's lost, he's often won. He failed to block ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention but won 28 of the 33 concessions he sought.
Of course Helms's greatest achievement was the Reagan presidency itself. How's that? Well, when Reagan sought to wrest the GOP presidential nomination from President Ford in 1976, Helms saved him from a catastrophic defeat that would have doomed his White House dreams forever. Reagan was 0 for 5 in the early primaries and his aides were negotiating his withdrawal with the Ford forces at the time of the North Carolina primary. Ford was heavily favored. But Helms and his ally Tom Ellis wouldn't quit. They raised money to televise Reagan's speech denouncing the Panama Canal giveaway. Reagan won, then ran off a string of primary victories that nearly gained him the nomination. The real effect, however, was to make Reagan the frontrunner in 1980. Had Helms not played the role of savior in North Carolina, a Reagan without a primary victory in 1976 would have been finished as a national figure.
Will another Helms emerge in the Senate? Politicians as firm in their beliefs
and as willing to buck public opinion and the Washington culture don't
appear very often. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, with his presidential
ambitions gone, might fit the bill. So might Sen. Mitch McConnell of
Kentucky, though he may be on track to become the next Senate GOP
leader. Both are unashamedly conservative and fearless in taking unpopular
positions. But replace Helms? It's probably more than can be hoped
08/14/01: The Impresario: Karl Rove, Orchestrator of the Bush White House