With a Bite as Bad as His Bark, Sen. Jesse Helms Makes Enemies Gladly as the Right's Best Friend
updated 07/27/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/27/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Indeed, the President has found Helms a rather unnerving friend. "At his base Ronald Reagan is a decent man," Helms allows, "but I don't think he would pretend to be the most brilliant man that ever sat in the White House." A fierce anti-Communist, outspokenly biased in favor of white South Africa and the military regimes of Latin America, Helms single-handedly held up the confirmation of seven senior State Department appointees for four months, claiming they didn't reflect the "Reagan program." Even so, the White House courtship of Helms continues. Last week Supreme Court nominee Sandra Day O'Connor paid a call on Helms to calm his fears about her position on abortion. "You win some and you lose some," says Helms. "What's important to me is that you stand up for the principles you believe in."
In keeping with that idea, Helms has continued to work diligently for an array of social legislation so controversial it could easily fracture the centrist alliance the President needs for the passage of his economic program. Among Helms' goals are an end to the benchmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, the abolition of busing, the return of prayer to the public schools, and the so-called Family Protection Act, which, in addition to other measures of dubious wisdom and legality, would repeal federal laws against wife and child abuse. Just two weeks ago a Senate subcommittee cleared the Helms-Hyde "Human Life Bill," which theoretically, if it became law, could subject abortionists and aborted women to murder charges. The constitutional issues posed by such legislation are deeply contentious and polarizing. Says Republican Sen. Charles Mathias Jr.: "There are disquieting signs on Capitol Hill that the election results are taken as license to declare open season on our civil liberties."
A disruption of Republican unity is the last thing the President needs, but so is Helms' wrath. His power derives in large part from his national fund-raising organization, the Congressional Club. In 1978 it took in a record $6.7 million for Helms' reelection campaign with a direct-mail appeal to 350,000 fellow conservatives. (Helms outspent his opponent 32 to 1, laying out $13.65 for every vote he got.) After that his organization was put at the disposal of other conservative candidates, including Ronald Reagan, with the result that Helms has political accounts receivable from many fellow Senators. He also chairs the critical Senate Republicans' Steering Committee, comprised of 25 of the majority's most influential members who meet informally to plot strategy. Still, Helms disingenuously insists: "I don't have clout and I don't want it. I really could care less about politics except as a means to an end. Principles are what count. I would like to see a restoration of the values I grew up with."
Helms' conservatism springs from nostalgia for life as it was lived some 50 years ago in his rural hometown of Monroe, N.C. The son of a fire and police chief with a third-grade education, Helms was raised a Southern Baptist and absorbed the Depression-era work ethic of his hard-scrabble cotton town. His childhood hero was Ray W. House, the former principal of Monroe High School and leader of the school band. He taught Jesse to play the tuba. "He was all legs and eyes," House recalls, "a real sight with that sousaphone wrapped around him." A poor athlete, Jesse was always the last one picked for baseball teams, but he was a willing boy. "Jesse knew that if he was ever going to have anything," says House, "he was going to have to work for it." During the state band championships in Greensboro, he recalls, "Jesse stopped right in the middle of a solo and said, 'Judge, I'm scared to death.' The judge said, 'So am I, son—go on.' And Jesse won first place."
Helms enrolled in Wake Forest College, paying his way as a dishwasher, manual laborer and proofreader. He dropped out in his senior year, however, to become a full-time sports reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer. There he met Dorothy Jane Coble, nicknamed Dot, a social-page reporter. "To get to the water cooler, I had to pass her office," he recalls. "It was a hot summer day, and the more I saw her, the thirstier I got." He and Dot were married in 1942 and eventually had two daughters. In 1962 they adopted son Charles, a victim of cerebral palsy (see box).
Helms' first experience in politics came in 1950 during an infamously dirty Senate race pitting Willis Smith, a conservative Democratic lawyer, against Dr. Frank Porter Graham, a former liberal president of the University of North Carolina. Helms volunteered to write Smith's publicity releases; what followed was a string of virulent fliers. One proclaimed, "White People Wake Up!" and warned of "Negroes working beside you, your wife and daughters in your mills and factories" if Graham were elected. He lost.
After working on Capitol Hill as Smith's aide, Helms returned to North Carolina and a seat on the Raleigh City Council. But his real political apprenticeship came in 1960, when he became part owner of a Raleigh TV and radio station—and its editorial commentator. For 12 years as "the Voice of Free Enterprise," Helms inveighed against Social Security "doles and handouts," academic freedom, labor unions, welfare and "powderpuff" criminal justice. He railed loudest at "the civil rights uproar," giving joy to Tarheel conservatives and apoplexy to the moderate Charlotte Observer, which blasted his hard-right ideological manifestos as a "rearguard action against race equality." (To this day Helms has never had a black staffer. "You know, I would love to have a competent, conservative black," he says, "but the fact is that blacks have not come far enough along that they're producing conservatives to any degree.")
Heard nightly over the 70-station "tobacco radio network" in eastern North Carolina, Helms became a local celebrity. But by the time he was ready to make his first run for the Senate in 1972, he needed a broader base. He found his campaign message in an experience of religious rebirth aboard a campaign plane bound for Asheville. The resulting speech was a rouser: "The problem with this country is that we've been trying to make a god out of government for 30 years and dismissing our Creator," he declared. "If we don't make it on principle, we won't make it at all." Helms made it.
Having done so, he applied himself to mastering the Senate rule book like a mentor from the '50s, the late Sen. Richard Russell—-and pioneering new uses of the strident campaign tactics that had characterized the Willis Smith race. In the last election, millions of pieces of mail went out under Helms' name on behalf of right-wing candidates for Congress, and much of the material was downright vicious. For the candidacy of freshman Sen. John East of North Carolina, for example, Helms himself made a TV ad declaring: "What we need is a real American in the Senate. A real Christian in the U.S. Senate." Says East's defeated opponent, ex-Sen. Robert Morgan: "Nothing was said about me not being a real American or a real Christian, but it was certainly obvious what Helms meant." In other campaigns of 1980, Helms' Congressional Club teamed with the National Conservative Political Action Committee and direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie to defeat such liberal Senate veterans as McGovern, Bayh, Church and Culver. And more of the same is promised for the election of 1982. "Helms' power is a direct function of the belief by members that there is a right-wing monster that will devour them," says liberal Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. "A lot of them are scared. They saw their colleagues go down in the last election. Senators have to begin to believe that Jesse Helms is not invincible."
Whatever his colleagues think, Helms plainly intends to fight on for a domestic policy retrenchment—to ensure that, as Helms predicted just after the election, "the President won't forget who brought him to the dance and go home with somebody else." And if Reagan does? Says Richard Viguerie: "I would be very enthusiastic about Helms running for President—and so would about 90 percent of the conservatives in this country." Helms predictably demurs. "I'd rather run for the county line," he says. "As far as the conservative cause is concerned, I'm just a ship passing in the night." But it is clearly a ship with heavy weapons aboard, guns ablaze and bound for Helms' own remembered past. "We can halt the long decline," he says. "There is nothing inevitable about it. There is a way back."