Helms: A Contrarian Who Never Forgets, or Forgives

<i> John Podhoretz, TV critic of the New York Post, is author of "Hell of a Ride: Backstage at the White House Follies 1989-1993" (Simon & Schuster). He is writing a book on the Republican ascendancy, to be published by G.P. Putnam's Sons</i>

Every couple of years, it’s always Jesse Helms, inspiring fear and loathing in elite circles--elites Democratic and Republican. For liberals, he is the demonic face of conservatism; for managerial Republicans, he is the frightening face of backwoods populism; for Jay Leno, he is a fringe figure easy to make fun of, because hardly anyone will be offended by his Helms joke.

All taken, the senior senator from North Carolina plays a part on the U.S. political stage he has written and designed for himself, a role he occupies with gusto and relish. A self-appointed scourge of the Establishment, a needler, tweaker and provocateur extraordinaire, Helms is one of the key figures of another important American Establishment. Call it the anti-Establishment Establishment.

The anti-Establishment Establishment is like the Internet, for, by definition, it has no leaders, no membership directory and no central philosophy. Its members are people who live polemically--what their enemies are for, they are against; and what their enemies are against, they are for.

Do the editorial pages of the country’s leading newspapers react with disgust to Helms’ assertion that President Bill Clinton is unfit to be commander-in-chief? Well, then, a week later, Helms will make a crack about Clinton needing a bodyguard if the President should tour a North Carolina military installation. That was, in case you missed it, a joke, a comedian’s shtick, and it meant this: “They scorn me, but I wear their scorn as a badge of honor.”


Did the arts community react with horror to his condemnation of the federal money given to a Robert Mapplethorpe photo exhibition? That’s exactly what Helms wanted to hear. Has Big Tobacco, the most important industry in his state, become an all-purpose American villain? Helms, who sides with all cultural underdogs, enjoys being a warrior on behalf of the industry most despised by “them.” What makes “them” uncomfortable makes him happy.

“Them” is the Establishment, and “they” can be defined in rather simple terms: the Ivy League, the major media and the old-line, semi-official American institutions like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Business Roundtable.

It would thus be a mistake to think that Helms is primarily a Republican activist. His enemies do not break down neatly by party line, as Helms’ own uneasy history in the GOP proves.

A decade ago, when the Republican Party had control of the U.S. Senate, foreign-policy officials in the Reagan Administration--people often viewed as radical right-wing ideologues by their opponents--reacted with fear when sitting Foreign Relations Chairman Charles H. Percy lost his Illinois Senate race. Not because they liked Percy, who was far too moderate for them, but because Helms was next in line for the job. (He did not take the chairmanship, as he will in the coming Congress, because he had promised his North Carolina constituents he would take agriculture instead.)


Helms was deeply suspicious of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy; he believed Reagan the cold warrior had ceded control of the anti-communist cause to a bunch of Establishment sell-outs. George P. Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, was indeed as Establishment as you could get, and no matter how tough Shultz was, it was always assumed that he was looking for a way to sell out--to give communists victories at the diplomatic table they could never win on the battlefield.

That was the key to Helms’ bizarre support for Salvadorean junta leader Roberto d’Aubuisson and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet: They were anti-communists whom even the anti-communist Reaganites could not stomach--which is why Helms could not only stomach them, but champion them. And the unrelentingly hostile treatment D’Aubuisson and Pinochet received in the media only strengthened his commitment to them.

For six years, Helms and his foreign-policy staffers--brilliantly effective guerrilla fighters named Christopher Manion, James P. Lucier and Deborah DeMoss, all of whom he has since replaced--fought a rear-guard action against their own President. By making use of some peculiarities in Senate rules, Helms himself put ambassadorial appointments on permanent hold when he disliked some aspect of Reagan’s foreign policy and was unable to get it changed. It was a form of blackmail that drove the State Department crazy--so, of course, Helms enjoyed the hell out of it.

And even though Reagan stalwart William J. Casey was head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Helms’ own foreign-policy ideas were as anti-CIA as Oliver Stone’s. The CIA determined that Nicaraguan Contra leader Eden Pastora was unreliable, and even though Pastora himself was the farthest left of all the Contras, Helms supported him because of the CIA’s opposition.


Why? Because in his eyes, the CIA was an Establishment outfit, ruled by a permanent bureaucracy recruited out of Yale University by founding director (and staunch scion of Old Eli) Allen Dulles.

The loathing Helms feels toward the Establishment is the guiding principle of his political life, forged as it was by his anger at the moral superiority the Establishment asserted over people like him during the civil-rights revolution. Call a proud Southerner a backward, racist Yahoo, and he will justifiably consider it an act of Northern aggression, he will always remember it and never forgive it.

Just as he will not forgive, so he will never be forgiven. Democrats made his ouster their top priority in the 1984 Senate races. With Jewish groups concerned by Helm’s opposition to foreign aid leading the way, a staggering $11 million was spent against him; Helms himself spent $12 million, and, per capita, that race is still considered the costliest in Senate history. (Helms may be an extremist, but he’s also a politician--at the conclusion of the race, he sued for peace by changing his tune on aid to Israel. One of his newer foreign-policy aides, Danielle Pletka, is a staunch supporter of Israel.)

Strangely enough, though Helms is about to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has never been a more marginal figure in his own party. The vote on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade last week was proof. GATT is everything Helms detests--an international agreement with a governing body made up of elitist bureaucrats--and, of course, he voted against it.


But he was oddly quiet in the days leading up to the vote, which passed by a margin of 76-24. Even his fellow North Carolinian, Lauch Faircloth, whom some consider the most conservative member of the Senate, voted in favor of the agreement. Now that Helms is a major figure in U.S. foreign policy, he may be struggling to find a new place for himself on the political spectrum--it’s difficult for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to play the role of the bomb-throwing backbencher.

Helms has found unexpected support in the last few weeks from Republicans initially irritated by the “shocked, shocked!” expressions of outrage that greeted his remarks about Clinton. He is being judged guilty by a standard that seems only to apply to Republicans and conservatives: After all, there was a popular joke in Washington Democratic circles that the Secret Service had a standing order to assassinate Dan Quayle should anything ever happen to George Bush.

The amazing thing is that, after all this time, the bombs Helms throws still have the capacity to injure his Establishment enemies.*