Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) set off a bipartisan tempest Tuesday by warning that President Clinton had "better watch out" for his safety if he travels to military bases in North Carolina, prompting the White House to suggest that Helms be denied chairmanship of a key Senate committee.
After GOP leaders delicately distanced themselves from Helms' provocative remarks and Democrats loudly demanded an apology, the fiercely combative lawmaker, who is in line to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conceded that his comments had been "a mistake."
But he stopped well short of a genuine apology. "Of course, I didn't expect to be taken literally," he said in a prepared statement.
In an interview published Tuesday morning in the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, the 73-year-old conservative asserted that Clinton is extremely unpopular among armed forces personnel stationed at the six military bases in his home state.
"Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here," the newspaper quoted Helms as saying. "He'd better have a bodyguard."
The President, asked about Helms' remarks during a White House news conference, called them "unwise and inappropriate." While asserting his authority in matters of foreign affairs, he said that it is up to Republicans to decide who will speak for them.
"The President oversees the foreign policy of the United States and the Republicans will decide in whom they will repose their trust and confidence," Clinton said.
It was a vintage performance for Helms, a conservative ideologue who has built a career based on pugnacious rhetoric and flamboyant attacks. But his critique of Clinton prompted soul-searching among some Republicans who fear that Helms, by his intemperate remarks, will bolster Democratic charges that the GOP is a party of extremists.
"Jesse," said a former senior official in the George Bush Administration, "has been for most Republicans an embarrassment."
Helms' comments were published on the 31st anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, adding to the embarrassment of Republican lawmakers. Most declined to comment directly, noting only that each of the Senate's 100 members speaks only for him or herself.
No such restraint was observed by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who is locked in a race to lead the Senate's new minority Democrats. He called on Helms to issue a formal apology to the President and to members of the armed forces, whose loyalty and patriotism, Dodd said, were called into question by Helms.
"To suggest on this day of all days . . . that an American President's life might be in jeopardy (if he) were to visit an American military base, would suggest that my colleague from North Carolina doesn't seem to know what country he's living in," Dodd said. "This is not a banana republic."
It is not the first time that Helms has provoked a political furor. He once accused former Secretary of State George P. Shultz of "playing footsie with the Communists" by opposing apartheid in South Africa. In a floor debate over funding for AIDS research, he bluntly characterized homosexuals as "perverted."
Helms often storms onto the Senate floor to rail against abortions and erotic art and regularly angers both Democratic and Republican colleagues by threatening to waylay measures that he dislikes by engaging in a one-man filibuster.
"This senator," he once told fellow lawmakers, "did not come to Washington to gain popularity with his colleagues."
His latest remarks came just four days after a television interview in which Helms questioned Clinton's fitness to serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. Those comments drew muted criticism from Republicans and a vigorous denial from Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On Tuesday, the Secret Service, which is responsible for the President's safety, confirmed that it is seeking a transcript of Helms' interview with the News and Observer. But officials were quick to caution that they do not view Helms' remarks as an effort to incite violence against the President.
Military officials in North Carolina, where Clinton visited in April, took pains to disassociate themselves from Helms' comments.
"The President is the commander in chief. He is welcome on any base in the military that he chooses to visit," said Capt. Bruce Sprecher, public affairs officer at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base.
Responding to Helms' newspaper interview, the White House publicly questioned his suitability for the Foreign Relations chairmanship. White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta urged Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who is expected to be majority leader in the new Congress, to ignore tradition and pass over Helms in choosing the next chairman.
"I think those comments are not only reckless but they are dangerous and irresponsible," Panetta told a small group of reporters. "And I think they raise a very serious question as to whether (Helms) ought to assume the chairmanship of that committee. I think the Republican leadership needs to take a very hard look as to whether or not they want somebody with these kind of extreme views to chair one of the most important committees in the Congress of the United States."
Panetta said that Helms' remarks and Republican leaders' response to them "will tell us an awful lot what kind of course we're going to take in the next Congress."
The reaction of Republican leaders generally fell short of the repudiation that Democrats are seeking. Neither Dole nor incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), asked about the flap at a Republican Governors Assn. session in Williamsburg, Va., would criticize Helms directly. "The President's welcome to come to any state," said Dole. "That's the way it should be, that's the way it is, that's the way it will be."
Gingrich said that Republicans would welcome any Clinton visit as an opportunity to engage in debate over the nation's future.
"I would hope that (Clinton) would feel that all Americans want to respect and honor the President and that they want to welcome their President in their neighborhood and their community any time he wishes to come and visit," he said.
Some Republicans were more blunt in their criticism of Helms.
"I wish he hadn't said it," said Republican political consultant Lyn Nofziger. "If it did anything, it creates a little sympathy with the prez, and I'm not in favor of that. . . . It gives people something to shoot at. And it distracts a little. But is it a permanent damage? No."
While some Republicans stewed, Senate insiders suggested that Helms' legislative career likely would suffer little.
"There will be no effort to muzzle anyone," said one key Republican aide. "That's the way this body operates. These folks are very independent people. It would be very inappropriate for someone to try to quiet Sen. Helms. And there's a great deal of deference to committee chairmen and seniority."
Times staff writers John M. Broder and Ronald Brownstein contributed to this story.
Tracking a Controversy
President Clinton, during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, called remarks made by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) "inappropriate and unwise."
* Asked if Clinton was up to the commander in chief's job: "No I do not. And neither do people in the armed forces."
--CNN interview last week
* On the president visiting North Carolina: "Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard."
--interview with the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. on Monday
* On his earlier remarks: "I made a mistake last evening which I shall not repeat.
--statement issued Tuesday
The Helms File
Past remarks by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman:
Nov. 4, 1993: "It was well-known that (Haitian President Jean-Bertrand) Aristide is a murderer. Yet somebody decided to return him to power, if necessary, at the risk of American lives. Who is making these decisions?"
--to Secretary of State Warren Christopher at a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee
Aug. 5, 1993: "I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' to her until she cries."
--Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., quoted Helms as saying to her a month after they had debated on the Senate floor over use of the Confederate flag
May 7, 1993: "She's not your garden-variety lesbian. She's a militant-activist-mean lesbian, working her whole career to advance the homosexual agenda."
--on the nomination of a gay rights activist to a Department of Housing and Urban Development post
Oct. 30, 1990: "People can do what they want in the privacy of their own homes, but when they start marching in the street and say that homosexuality should be given special privileges and be treated as a normal lifestyle, you bet I say no."
--during a campaign stop for his 1990 Senate campaign
Oct. 24, 1990: "What is really at stake is whether or not America will allow the cultural high ground in this nation to sink slowly into an abyss of slime to placate people who clearly seek or are willing to destroy the Judaic-Christian foundations of this republic."
--talking about National Endowment for the Arts funding to certain artists
Source: Associated Press
Helms Takes It Back
This is a statement by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) on Tuesday regarding his remarks about President Clinton:
I made a mistake last evening which I shall not repeat.
In an informal telephone interview with a local reporter I made an offhand remark in an attempt to emphasize how strongly the American people feel about the nation's declining defense capability and other issues in which the President has been involved and for which he is responsible.
Of course I didn't expect to be taken literally when, to emphasize the cost and concerns I am hearing, I far too casually suggested that the President might need a bodyguard, or words to that effect.
And let me say that President Clinton will of course be welcomed by me and other citizens of North Carolina and other states any time he chooses to visit us.
The reporter asked my opinion and I tried to be candid in my response. The President has serious problems with his records of draft avoidance, with his stand on homosexuals in the military and the declining defense capability of America's armed forces--the secretary of defense recently acknowledged that three U.S. Army divisions are not now combat ready.
I reiterate that I now wish that I had engaged in a terse interview with the reporter. I did not. As is my custom, we had an informal conversation from which he extracted an informal quote that should not have been taken literally, let alone published.
I do not fault him. I fault myself. From now on, such contacts as I may have with the media will be entirely formal.
Source: Associated Press