What You Need to Know about Jesse Helms

The senator from North Carolina is racist, divisive, pro-government (when it favors the wealthy), and anti-democratic. So why did American voters swing towards Helms and the extreme right last November?

Jesse Helms sits at the head of the curved rostrum, a faint smile on his lips, listening attentively to testimony about the beleaguered Mexican economy. It is his second hearing as chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and he has been a model of procedure and decorum. He has kept his remarks brief, demurred to the newest members, doled out equal time to Democrats and Republicans, and treated Clinton administration officials with courtesy and perhaps even a touch of deference.

Dr. Sidney Weintraub of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has just finished testifying in support of an administration plan to provide Mexico with $40 billion in loan guarantees. Helms, who opposes the aid package, leans forward to question Weintraub.

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"Would you feel differently," he asks, "if you were informed that the president of Mexico has declared in a press conference yesterday and again this morning that he will accept no conditions on this loan?"

The packed hearing room grows still. Helms is renowned for maintaining his own network of sources in Latin America, and for dropping bombshells in committee hearings.

Weintraub is guarded. "No conditions of any kind?"

Helms nods. "Yes, sir."

"If he would accept no conditions," Weintraub concedes, "then I would not support the loan."

Helms looks satisfied. "Well, I think that is important." Then he adds, almost as an aside, "I am not saying he has."

The room explodes in laughter.

"Now wait a minute," Helms says. "The report last night was flat-out, and I have been trying to trace it, and I am told the Associated Press moved it and then pulled it back. I'm not sure about that. I have only a report from the British Broadcasting Corporation, which has various statements made by President Zedillo, and we are attempting to ascertain what the facts are." Something sinister is going on south of the border, Helms seems to suggest, and he is going to get to the bottom of it.

Moments later, his aides give reporters the BBC story, which quotes Zedillo as saying he will accept no loan conditions that will "undermine Mexican sovereignty." It is the kind of thing a politician says to allay nationalist fears—not, as Helms implied, an outright refusal to negotiate repayment terms.

It is a classic Helms maneuver. The Mexican loan package is complex, but the senator has sidetracked the entire debate by turning a nonfact into a central issue. "No conditions" becomes a refrain throughout the hearing, creating a false impression of Mexican deadbeats trying to get something for nothing from American taxpayers. Weintraub spends the rest of the morning on the defensive, refuting something that no one had any reason to believe was true in the first place.

INNUENDO AND DIVERSION

After nearly a quarter century in the Senate, Helms understands how a determined minority of one can influence the national agenda. Whether he is suggesting that the commander in chief needs a bodyguard or demanding that Fidel Castro leave Cuba "in a vertical or horizontal position," Helms is well-known for his use of innuendo and diversion. Even the Republican Party treats him as a rogue elephant, powerful yet dangerously erratic. But the recent GOP stampede has given Helms a respected position from which to trumpet his bitter opposition to abortion, gay rights, racial equality, arts funding, and aid to what he calls "foreign rat holes."

His agenda is driven by a lifelong opposition to democracy and diversity. In his first months as Foreign Relations chair, Helms called for tougher sanctions against Cuba, accused Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide of unleashing "vigilance committees," and moved to gut support for developing nations. On the home front, he introduced a bill to eliminate all affirmative action programs, which he denounced as "reverse discrimination at the hands of ruthless bureaucrats."

How did someone so mean-spirited end up in a position to act on his divisive politics? For the most part, Helms wins political battles by keeping the spotlight on the morality plays he stages. To hear conservatives tell it, Helms is a personal friend of Jesus Christ, a populist defender of the little guy, and a bitter opponent of big government.

Shifting the spotlight reveals a different Helms. A former bank lobbyist whose fundraising machine has been fined for breaking federal campaign laws, Helms favors a big-spending, activist government—one that aids those in economic power. He voted to bail out the savings and loan industry, for example, and has seldom met a big-ticket missile system he didn't like. By contrast, he has voted to slash school lunches for impoverished children, medical care for disabled veterans, prescription drugs for the elderly, and wages for working families (see "On the record").

"Looking at the record, people ought to understand that Helms is not representing them on the great majority of issues," says Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat. "They perceive that he stands up for the little guy, but he really stands up for rich people rather than poor and working-class people."

NEGLECTING NORTH CAROLINA

James Harrington is one of the little guys. He doesn't vote. At 63, he retired last year from a loading job in Raleigh, N.C., and gets around with the help of a walker. He rents a ramshackle house in a black neighborhood for $250 a month, no heater, no appliances. Helms, he says, is just like any other politician. "They promise you a whole lot, but you can hold what you get from them in a small paper bag."

Beecher White votes. She cleans tables and washes dishes at two restaurants. For the past 16 years she has rented a modest house in a predominantly white part of Raleigh: $325 a month, no appliances. She likes Helms because "he is unpopular with liberals. I'm a conservative, so that's fine with me. I'm opposed to homosexual rights and abortion, and in favor of a balanced budget, increased defense spending, and Christian prayer in the schools. Helms is like my granddaddy."

Harrington and White are more than a cross section of the North Carolina electorate. Both live in rental units owned by Helms' wife Dorothy. The couple's personal property—including their home and the more than a dozen rental units they own between them—is valued for tax purposes at more than $1.4 million. An investigation by The Independent, a weekly newspaper in Durham, found that the Helmses employ two rental agents to manage their properties—one in low-income black neighborhoods and another in middle-class white areas. Some of the low-income units are in disrepair; Harrington's house has a rusty fuse box, peeling linoleum, missing doors, and a leaky ceiling.

If Helms the landlord neglects some of his tenants, Helms the senator fails to provide for many North Carolinians. Only four states receive less per capita in federal funds; only eight have more residents living in poverty. The state currently ranks 42nd in the release of cancer-causing toxins, 43rd in manufacturing wages, and 44th in infant mortality.

To obscure his record, Helms relies on a potent combination of money and fear mongering. Since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, Helms has raised hell, introducing amendments he knows will be defeated simply to force recorded votes. He has also raised money, founding the North Carolina Congressional Club, a political action committee that quickly became the nation's most successful moneymaking machine. The club freed Helms from the restraints operating on most politicians: He no longer needed the party to raise money, and he no longer needed the media to reach voters.

But his fundraising edge has never bought Helms a stunning margin of victory. Although he outspent his opponent 30-to-1 in his first bid for re-election, the senator won by only 103,000 votes out of 1.1 million cast. Six years later, when Reagan carried North Carolina with 62 percent of the vote, Helms raised a record $16.5 million and barely edged by with 52 percent. Trailing in the polls to black architect Harvey Gantt two weeks before the 1990 elections, Helms used an infusion of national capital to air a set of overtly racist commercials and squeaked through with only 53 percent.

Those narrow victories indicate how sharply Helms polarizes voters. "Right now there are 45 percent of the people going to vote for him if he runs two years from now, and 45 percent going to vote against him," says North Carolina AFL-CIO President Christopher Scott, who has followed Helms' Senate career closely. "He's never won an election by more than 55 percent, and when he's been seriously challenged it's been closer than that. He's been able to artfully use racism and negative character assassination to pull just enough votes over the line to win."

Many white North Carolinians are no doubt motivated to vote for Helms because of the almost primal fears he fans. "The principles we're espousing have been around for thousands of years," former aide James Lucier once explained, citing the "prepolitical" themes of God, family, property, and national pride.

But some voters are also attracted to Helms by the personal qualities that make him a rarity among politicians. He brings genuine passion and a sense of moral purpose to what he does. He stands on principle and refuses to compromise. He stands by his friends, and he forces opponents to vote on issues they would rather ignore.

"Most North Carolinians are not as conservative as Jesse Helms," says Paul Luebke, a state representative and author of Tar Heel Politics. "But by presenting himself as a man of courage, willing to stand up against 'tax-and-spend liberals,' homosexuality, and so forth, Helms commands respect."

But respect only goes so far—so the Helms campaign hedges its bets by cheating. In 1986, the Federal Election Commission penalized the North Carolina Congressional Club $10,000 and ordered it to reorganize, saying it had illegally subsidized Helms' 1984 campaign. Last year, a decade after the race, the FEC penalized the Helms for Senate committee $25,000 for accepting $700,000 in illegal contributions. And in 1992, the Helms campaign and the Congressional Club settled a Justice Department complaint over a pre-election mailing of postcards falsely threatening 125,000 black voters with jail if they went to the polls.

POLITICS OF SEGREGATION

The strategy that helped Republicans sweep to power last November is one that Jesse Helms perfected decades ago. "Jesse Helms understood before anyone else that the proverbial angry white male feels the most aggrieved, and is therefore the most likely to vote," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "Jesse Helms was an angry white male before most of his compatriots were. He should have been lucky enough to be on the ballot in '94. He would have won easily."

Unlike many of his Republican counterparts, Helms has changed little over the past 50 years. Long before Rush Limbaugh, Helms pioneered the use of television to rally public sentiment. While Ronald Reagan was losing primaries to Gerald Ford, Helms mobilized the religious right and built one of the most profitable political fundraising machines ever. And long after die-hard segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond began courting black voters, Helms fueled white fears by opposing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whistling "Dixie" while standing next to Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, and supporting apartheid in South Africa.

"His racial politics are deeply held convictions, not simply politics of convenience," says Christopher Scott. "He has a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome. If you could pick up the South Africa of 20 years ago and transplant it to America, that's what he would do."

Born in Monroe, N.C., in the fall of 1921, Helms grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid. He dropped out of college to work full time as a reporter before discovering the two arenas that would shape his career: broadcasting and politics. He learned about radio as a Navy recruiter during World War II and stuck with the emerging medium as news director of a fledgling station in Raleigh. And he was an "unofficial" researcher for conservative Willis Smith, whose 1950 Senate campaign is still considered one of the meanest and most racially divisive in the country's history. (One of Smith's ads featured a doctored photo of the incumbent's wife dancing with a black man. Helms has denied any involvement, but a newspaper advertising manager later told Helms biographer Ernest Furgurson that Helms personally cut up the photos.)

Smith won, and Helms was rewarded with a job as staff administrative assistant. In 1953, Helms returned to North Carolina as executive director of the state's banking association, spending the next seven years fighting to enrich his bosses. He won a seat on the Raleigh City Council and, in 1960, took a job as a TV commentator. He spent the decade railing against King, "Negro hoodlums," the media, "sex perverts," and anyone on welfare. As he explained in one of his nightly five-minute broadcasts, "A lot of human beings have been born bums."

Since Helms won election to the Senate, no "bums" have felt his rage as fiercely as citizens of poor nations. Over the years, the senator has proposed hundreds of measures to slash foreign aid, overthrow governments he doesn't like, and block administration policies. As the new chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has made it clear that his first priority is to enact deeper cuts to a foreign aid budget already slashed nearly 30 percent in the past decade.

"The fact is that the American people are sick and tired of this whole foreign aid concept anyhow," Helms said last year. "I find myself wishing that somehow we could put it on a national ballot and say: 'What do you think of this?'"

Those cuts will hit hardest in the Third World, where Helms has long been a staunch ally of right-wing military rulers like Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Raoul Cedras in Haiti, and Roberto D'Aubuisson in El Salvador. Confronted with evidence that D'Aubuisson directed death squads to murder civilians, Helms made it clear that some things are more important than human life. "All I know," he replied, "is that D'Aubuisson is a free enterprise man and deeply religious."

A SHADOW STATE DEPARTMENT

Helms has long maintained an extensive network of contacts in Latin America that serves as a sort of shadow State Department. "For years he had a cadre of young people who were very well-connected," says a committee staff member. "You could have set them down in any South American junta and they would have been right at home."

The problem, say those familiar with his network, is that the information it provides is one-sided. "When I bring people to his office to tell him what we've seen, we aren't even allowed in," says Gail Phares, who leads delegations to Central America through Witness for Peace. "I remember when one delegation managed to get in and told his staff what they'd seen and heard in Nicaragua about the contras killing doctors and nurses and children, their response was, 'Well, they're just Communists—they deserve to die.'"

Such careless remarks concern the new Republican leadership, but Helms is simply too valuable—and too powerful—to silence. In effect, his unpredictable outbursts serve the GOP by tilting the agenda to the extreme right. "Helms is a wild card," says one former committee staffer. "You never know where he will pop up—and that keeps the opposition guessing."

Helms also keeps the media guessing. His staff refused an interview for this article, but Helms recently exhibited his disdain for journalists when a Washington Post reporter asked him what he considered his biggest accomplishment as senator. "Raising the blood pressure of reporters and editors like you so easily and so often," Helms replied.

After nearly half a century of outraging his enemies, Helms may need to watch his own blood pressure. At 73, he has been slowed down by prostate cancer and heart surgery, and several staffers say privately that the senator visited the hospital in January complaining of chest pain. Helms has broken with many longtime allies, purging several key staffers and ending his formal ties both to the fundraising machine now called the National Conservative Club and to a spin-off group accused of illegalities by the IRS.

Some observers feel that federal scrutiny of his campaign network, along with his failing health, could make Helms vulnerable now that he has indicated he will run for re-election in 1996. But such predictions have been made before, and Helms has overcome the odds.

What would Helms do with a fifth term? "If you think he's bad now, wait until you see what he's like if he wins again," says Christopher Scott of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. "The biggest fear people should have is that if Helms is re-elected, he will understand that the next term would almost inevitably be his last. He will feel no constraint—he won't have to worry about political realities. It will be his final chance to shove it to those people he doesn't like."

For a list of resources on Jesse Helms, see our resource guide.

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