Jesse Helms, the Senator From Hell

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

Oh, to be blessed with an enemy the likes of Jesse Helms, that bilious spewer of hate who stains all that he embraces with his trademark brand of verbal toxic waste.

It was Sen. Helms (R-N.C.) who derided the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress” and later opposed a national holiday for that “pervert” Martin Luther King Jr. And it was Helms who, while millions throughout the world faced death from AIDS, sought to block funding for medical research on that dread disease to punish the “revolting conduct” and “unnatural acts” of gays.

Whomever this oaf attacks must be given the respect due those on the side of decency. So it was when Helms threatened that President Clinton would need a “bodyguard” to enter Helms’ state after Clinton dared to differ with the senator on gays in the military. And so it is now with Helms’ efforts to block the appointment of William Weld as ambassador to Mexico.


Surely Weld, a superbly qualified Republican appointed by a Democratic president, should sail through the confirmation process. And he would, if only the full Senate could vote. But the Senate hasn’t acted because the Republican leadership has ceded dictatorial powers over foreign policy to a man whose only claim on his position is the length of his stay on Capitol Hill.

That the Senate remains an old boys’ club dominated by bizarre, even kinky, ritual is evidenced by the advice of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that Weld “kiss Jesse’s ring or some part of his anatomy. That’s the way Washington works.”

What’s at stake, as Weld stated, is a “battle for the soul of the Republican Party.” Is there room in that “big tent” that party leaders evoke at election time for a moderate pro-choice Republican leader who believes gays have constitutional rights? Not according to Bill Bennett, the Republicans’ self-designated Mr. Virtue, who said of Weld: “His positions are so far to the left on stuff like gay rights, I don’t think he’ll be a persuasive witness for winning the hearts and minds of Republicans.”

That’s the real issue: Will the party puritans who want a big brother government to force us to be “virtuous” accommodate those of a more libertarian bent who really do believe individuals should have some sovereignty over their own lives? But instead of facing up to the irreconcilable differences of conservative politics, the reeking red herring of the drug war has been dragged in to foul the debate. Quoting Bennett again: “You want to send a clear signal about drugs; whatever Weld is, he’s not a clear signal.”

Weld, as governor of Massachusetts, approved needle exchange programs that have curtailed the transmission of the HIV virus--crime of crimes! He also supports a physician’s right to prescribe marijuana if it serves the medical needs of a patient. Better add to the list of criminals Dr. William Beaver of Georgetown University School of Medicine, who last week reported the unanimous conclusion of a panel of eight health professionals appointed by the NIH that “marijuana looks promising enough to recommend that there be new controlled studies.”

Weld is not “soft” on illicit drugs. He was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, and John C. Lawn, then head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, points out that drug prosecutions and convictions rose more than 40% during Weld’s tenure. Weld resigned in protest over charges of corruption against his boss, Atty. Gen. Ed Meese, who now is pushing Helms to block Weld’s appointment.


Is the medical use of marijuana so extreme a threat that it would force one into an alliance with the Senate’s point man for the tobacco lobby, which claims 400,000 American (and God knows how many foreign) lives a year? Bennett should know that tobacco is a far more powerfully addictive drug than marijuana, having been a chain smoker for most of his life. Yet not only does he oppose Weld’s nomination, but as drug czar in 1990 he actively campaigned for the reelection of Helms, Mr. Tobacco, to the Senate.

It’s outrageous that tolerance of the medical use of marijuana could bar a man from serving as ambassador to Mexico--especially when his nemesis is a fanatical advocate for the drug that most clearly threatens the health of the world’s people. Helms’ position gives him veto power over the entire range of U.S. foreign policy. This is no longer a matter of one man’s vile buffoonery, but represents a dangerous degradation of the nation’s politics.