The last of his kind in Congress

With the pending retirement of Sen. Jesse Helms, few are prepared to inherit his mantle as lion of the far right.

For decades, he has been "Senator No," a man who could singlehandedly scuttle major appointments by presidents of either party or force a revamp of the United Nations budget.

Sen. Jesse Helms's retirement may well mark the passage of an era when US political conservatives were defined by what they opposed, as much as what they were for, and felt little need to market themselves as compassionate.

Throughout his career, the courtly, cherubic Republican from North Carolina has been proud to be Congress's most powerful throwback. ("I'm so old-fashioned I believe in horsewhipping," he said in a 1991 debate.) Fiercely anticommunist, suspicious of federal meddling, insistent on Senate prerogatives, he has been a scourge to the left and a lion to the right.

But if he is the Rambo of the Geritol set, as Bob Dole once said, he is also the last of his kind. Conservatives today can differ on issues from immigration to trade, and still call themselves conservative.

After Mr. Helms, there is no obvious defender of the flame. "What you'll see is a lot of people now competing to inherit his mantle," says Walter Russell Mead, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst who has studied Helms's career. "But the conservative movement is very divided now, and Helms was in a unique position."

At time of writing Helms had not officially announced that he plans to step down from the Senate when his term expires in January 2003. But widespread reports indicated that a statement from Helms to that effect was imminent.

Helms's mobility has been limited by health problems in recent years, and his wife is widely thought to want to return to live in North Carolina full-time.

By retiring now, Helms would clear the way for Elizabeth Dole, a longtime supporter and friend, to run for his seat. Mrs. Dole is popular in North Carolina, her home state, and the GOP arguably needs a strong candidate to win in a state where neither party is dominant.

Helms is a true son of the Tarheel State. The child of a police chief, he was born and raised in Monroe, N.C., 15 miles from the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, a similarly truculent and commanding figure. Helms never graduated from college. He came to statewide prominence as a journalist, first with Raleigh newspapers, later as a commentator for TV and the Tobacco Radio Network.

His editorials reflected the views of a South that was accepting civil rights grudgingly, at best. In 1963, he said on TV that "the Negro cannot count forever on the kind restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets." In 1965, he defended the rights of the owner of a segregated lunch counter.

Later, in 1990, the most infamous ad of his political career showed white hands crumpling up a job rejection slip, with a voice-over indicating the position had gone to a minority. That year Helms defeated his opponent, the African-American former mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, by a narrow margin.

Like many Southern politicians of his era, Helms began as a Democrat and converted to the GOP. He entered the Senate in 1972, on the coattails of the Richard Nixon landslide. At first underrated, he proved a tenacious campaigner in a state where an influx of Northerners and Midwesterners has roiled the electoral calculus in recent years.

Ronnie Faulkner, a history professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., compares Helms to 19th-century Tarheel Sen. Nathaniel Macon. Both came from rural backgrounds. Both opposed strong central governments. Both favored states' rights and laissez faire economic policies. "In fact, Helms once referred to Macon as 'the original Senator No,' " says Professor Faulkner.

Almost since the time he entered the Senate, Helms has used a position on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired from 1994 until the GOP loss of the Senate earlier this year, as a forum to push his own personal foreign policy.

He fought hard against the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s. He was a champion of the contra anticommunist fighters in Nicaragua in the '80s. He has long blocked ambassadorial appointments he did not like, including former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's nomination to be envoy to Mexico in 1997.

Mead calls Helms the embodiment of the "Jacksonian" tradition. Populist, unilateralist, suspicious of international do-gooding, it is a strong current in US opinion that is often dismissed by elites. "We're talking tens of millions of people here.... Jesse Helms was kind of the spokesman for this current of opinion in American life," says Mead.

One thing is sure: It's hard to be on the fence when it comes to one of the last old Southern stalwarts. A polarizing force, he was sure to draw criticism from liberals and minorities in every campaign. Throughout his long tenure, he cultivated an aura of invincibility. In fact, the whole image of him as an all-powerful Tarheel icon isn't accurate, says Andy Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State in Raleigh.

"When Helms ran he really never won by large margins," says Mr. Taylor. "Because people have such polarizing views of him, no ones is ambivalent or agnostic on Jesse Helms in North Carolina."

Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

In his own words

" It was so loud I couldn't really understand what he was saying." - After attending a U2 concert in June at the invitation of lead singer Bono.

" There's going to be six more years of torment for Ted Kennedy." - On winning a fifth term in 1996.

" The destruction of this country can be pinpointed in terms of its beginnings to the time that our political leadership turned to socialism. They didn't call it socialism, of course. It was given deceptive names and adorned with fancy slogans. We heard about New Deals and Fair Deals and New Frontiers and the Great Society." - In an editorial for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C.

Source: The Associated Press

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