If you had read the major newspapers in North Carolina over the past 30 years, you might have wondered how a man with virtually nothing to commend him had been reelected to the United States Senate four times.
To the press, Senator Jesse Helms was a “troglodyte,” a “racist,” “Senator No,” and a “fluke.” To the liberals who opposed him, he was often much worse. As a result, the press and liberals never failed to act surprised when Helms won reelection again and again.
It is with no small amount of amusement that Helms documents their years of bewilderment in his memoir, Here’s Where I Stand (the title implies “For the last time, folks”). It’s a bit of a wink and nod to those who have understood him, and a last invitation to “get him” for those who never did.
It’s unlikely that a lot of the latter will take him up on it, but they misunderstand Helms at their own risk. Helms is a man who knew print media would suffer for its lack of immediacy in the mid-‘40s, at which point he switched from a job behind the typewriter to one behind the microphone.
Helms saw a need for a conservative voice in liberal-dominated media in 1958, when he started broadcasting editorials on television in Raleigh, North Carolina on the “value of self-reliance, the virtue of limited government, and the danger of Communism.”
And, he had learned by the early ‘70s how to trumpet his conservative values to earn the votes of Southern Democrats who hadn’t voted for a Republican in generations. In North Carolina, they call those folks Jessecrats. Those same disaffected Democrats, were won over again by Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s and that is much of the reason the South is solidly red today.
Helms was present for the start of the Moral Majority, pioneered the use of direct mail as a fundraising source, and was a precursor to the conservative revolution in Washington.
Here’s Where I Stand is a matter-of-fact, often funny journey through the politics of the late 20th century. It’s also a look at a different side of the senator than the barking ideologue media portrayals. This Helms offers optimism and laughs to temper the steel backbone he brought to Washington.
Many of Helms’ brushes with history and its figures are nothing short of remarkable.
For instance, when Ronald Reagan was touring the country as host of the General Electric Theater in the early ‘60s, he dropped by the Raleigh television station where Helms had recently started editorializing. Reagan asked Helms:
“Are you going to run for office one of these days?” I said no, I didn’t have any plans to do that — but I sure hoped that he would. After a moment of reflection, [Reagan] said, “I’m thinking about it.”
Helms was also one fundraiser away from a seat on the ill-fated Korean Airelines Flight 007 in 1983. Helms was on his way to Korea, but he stopped in Texas for a fundraiser with Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. His plane and KAL 007, which was carrying the rest of the group for the trip, refueled in Anchorage. On the ground in Anchorage is the last place he saw Congressman Larry McDonald before McDonald and the other 268 passengers were shot out of the sky after wandering into Soviet airspace.
And, during his time at WRAL, Helms editorialized on the “dignified and positive way” in which a young student handled being the first black student at Clemson University.
“He didn’t arrive with a throng of demonstrators, and he proved his point in the best way possible, by doing well then and in the years that followed.”
That student was Harvey Gantt, who later became Helms’ two-time opponent for his Senate seat in 1990 and 1996.
Helms uses his book to recount the battles he fought for his positions and to recant none of them. A chapter entitled “Race Relations” beckons from the table of contents, begging you to flip ahead. In it, he defends his stance against forced integration, which he felt undermined the ability of Southerners of all races to “resolve their differences without the intervention of government” and polarized “the very people who most needed to work together for the good of their communities.”
He also addressed his opposition to the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, which he felt was a huge honor hastily bestowed without a fair investigation and hearing about King’s work with Communist associates.
His critics will not be convinced by these explanations, nor will they give Helms much credit for raising and allocating millions in private and public funds to help prevent the spread of AIDS worldwide, specifically from mother to child. Or, for his early recognition of the fight against Communism as a fight against human rights violations.
But Helms doesn’t care.
He is now, as he was in office, proud of his beliefs. He is still the man who took delight in decorating his Senate office walls with countless cartoons bearing his bespectacled caricature. In the chapter “Hot Topics,” he blasts the media for treating his conservatism as the enemy of America while treating the country’s real enemies — Communist and other totalitarian regimes — like political philosophies worthy of respect. He recounts his fights for prayer in school, pro-life policies, and against public funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
The foreign relations section of the book is a great primer on the major battles of the second half of the 20th century. Helms touches on the Panama Canal, Taiwan independence, UN corruption and reform, the International Criminal Court, and of course, the fall of the Soviet Union. And, he does it all with an unwavering belief in a sovereign America as a force for good in the world.
His command over all these subjects and the details of his travel in dealing with them help dispel another favorite caricature of Helms as the provincial country boy. To Helms, it was the values of that very boyhood in the country that allowed him to approach domestic and foreign issues alike with a certainty and consistency that delighted his supporters and aggravated his opponents.
Of course, not all of them were too aggravated to work with Helms. One of the things his book reveals is a collegiality in the Senate, even among the most politically divergent members, which some say the body has lost in the last decade. Helms sends many of his political opponents off with a pat on the back. He is perhaps more generous to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton than most conservatives would be, though he does spend three paragraphs explaining that he is, “absolutely not related to Jimmy Carter,” despite rumors to the contrary.
Helms fondly recounts his work and his friendships with Robert Byrd (a painting of Byrd’s hangs in the Helms home), and Joe Biden (“Joe and I knew we could trust each other and that we shared the same goals, even when we had differences about how to achieve them.”). He and Paul Wellstone were close enough that Wellstone visited Helms’ close friend Bud Nance in the hospital toward the end of Nance’s life. And, Helms goes so far as to say he “loved” Hubert Humphrey.
These relationships and Helms’ more contentious ones are understandably painted in the sunny hues of a memoir. In parts, the memoir needed more bare-knuckle politics than local-boy-makes-good. The book is Helms without apology, which has already ticked off his liberal critics, but it is also Helms without the steely edge America has come to expect. Maybe after 30 years of press coverage, he thought we’d seen quite enough of that side.
Even with the softer side of Helms, however, there are stories and accomplishments enough in Here’s Where I Stand to inspire conservatives of all stripes, especially these days when the Republican majority is more often characterized by the “Gang of 14” than gangbusters like Helms.