WASHINGTON — IT was a small episode that cast a revealing light on Jesse Helms, the controversial North Carolinian slated to take control of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January.
In an intense legislative fight last summer, Senator Helms sought to have the United States cut off all aid to the International Development Association, an affiliate of the World Bank that gives interest-free loans to poor nations.
If he had settled for a partial cut - even a big one - he might have won. Unwilling to compromise, he pressed on and lost.
``Helms would rather be 100 percent right and lose than 80 percent right and win,'' says a former senior Senate staffer, recalling the incident. ``Basically, he's a true believer.''
The episode was typical: Through two decades of service in the Senate, Helms has been unfailingly true to his principles. The problem for President Clinton is that in foreign matters as well as domestic, Helms's principles are largely at odds with his own. As Helms prepares to take charge of the Senate panel, that could spell trouble for an administration more eager than ever to make a mark in foreign affairs.
``Helms will not have a great capacity to change foreign policy in any fundamental way but he will have enormous capacity to cause all manner of trouble for the State Department and the White House,'' says another diplomatic analyst, who asked not to be named.
The prospect of Helms's accession has caused consternation in the Clinton administration and even among some moderate Republicans who fear that his uncomplicated world view, shaped in the rural South, may be out of step with the complicated realities of the post-cold war era.
Helms and the White House are likely to clash on the basic definition of the United States role abroad.
Clinton is an internationalist who thinks the US should act, alone or in concert, with international organizations like the United Nations and World Bank to advance democracy, human rights, and sustainable development in poor nations.
While no isolationist, Helms opposes all but essential engagement abroad and is opposed to multilateral diplomacy in general. His anti-Soviet views have carried over into opposition to the administration's ``Russia-first'' policy. Helms would seek to put a sharper anti-Russia spin on NATO, orient US policy towards Taiwan and away from China, and cut US support for UN peacekeeping operations and foreign aid.
``We must stop this stupid business of giving away the taxpayers' money willy-nilly,'' Helms told a recent press conference.
Helms fired his opening salvo this week, warning Mr. Clinton that unless he postpones an up-coming congressional vote on a world-trade pact, he will face stiff opposition on other issues. Clinton has declined, saying the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is needed to create thousands of US jobs.
One foreign policy expert speculates that if Helms had been alive in 1919 he would been one of the band of Senate ``irreconcilables'' who opposed US entry into the League of Nations. ``Helms is a unilateralist who wants to retain complete freedom of action for the US,'' says Frederick Holborn of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
George Washington University historian Leo Ribuffo says Helms shares with the isolationists of the 1930s a ``gut inclination to feel that what the establishment experts think on foreign policy is wrong.''
Underlying Helms's unilateralist approach to foreign policy is a visceral antagonism to the State Department, which has made him public enemy No. 1 in Foggy Bottom.
Helms is likely to continue making life difficult for the department by thwarting appointments and policies he opposes. But, paradoxically, his accession is likely to provide long-term job security for Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Congressional sources say Helms would turn confirmation hearings on any successor to Mr. Christopher into an anti-Clinton inquisition. In the unlikely event that Clinton decided to weather such a storm he would be more likely to appoint a sitting or former lawmaker who would at least be accorded senatorial courtesy.
Though not in the intellectual mainstream of the Senate, the courtly Southerner is well regarded personally by most members and has managed to work well with Democrats on at least one issue: controlling the international narcotics trade.
But on other issues he is likely to be opposed by a large bloc of Democrats and moderate Republicans on the committee.
``He will not have many natural allies on many issues,'' says Professor Holborn. ``He will not have any intellectual dominance over the majority of members.''
The son of a police chief, Helms was raised in a tiny North Carolina town where post-bellum Southern values - Protestant fundamentalism but also segregation - held sway. He worked his way through college as a reporter for the News and Observer of Raleigh, N.C., where he makes his home. He got his first taste of Washington politics as a Senate staff member.
Back in North Carolina, Helms gained statewide recognition as a TV commentator who championed conservative causes during the 1960s, denouncing the civil rights movement and even accusing Richard Nixon of ``appeasing'' communist China. He was swept into the Senate in the Nixon landslide of 1972.
As a lawmaker, Helms has been an outspoken champion of controversial causes, opposing federal funding for what he describes as ``pornographic'' art and resisting efforts to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
``The last day I'm in the Senate I will fight any effort to legitimize homosexuality,'' he said of one conviction that, along with support of school prayer and opposition to abortion, has made Helms a hero of the Christian right.
``As exasperating as he is sometimes, his motives are not bad,'' says the aforementioned former Senate staffer. ``It's just that what he believes in, he believes in deeply.''