Senator Jesse Helms, who like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the Fourth of July, was the authentic voice of conservatism for three decades. He was a role model of an incorruptible public official who adhered to principle despite the pressures that surround those with political power, and he gave us a standard by which others can be measured.
Helms was elected five times as U.S. senator from North Carolina, and all his races were hard-fought. He never ran away from the controversy that his conservatism engendered.
In 1976, conservatives were as depressed as they are today. Conservatives were so dissatisfied and angry about the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations that California Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged the incumbent Ford, a daring decision because it's so seldom that an incumbent is defeated in his own party primary.
Reagan lost primary after primary and was destined to be just another wannabe presidential candidate until Helms seized the moment and changed politics forever. Helms took charge of the primary campaign in North Carolina and led Reagan to an upset victory that transformed him into a viable presidential candidate.
Even though Reagan lost the presidential nomination to Ford by only 117 delegate votes, with hindsight we can see that the real importance of the 1976 Republican Convention was the platform. Although only a first-term senator from a Southern state, Helms decided that the Republican platform should be the forum on which to rebuild the conservative movement that had badly eroded under Nixon, Ford, and their chief adviser, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Helms urged convention delegates to adopt a strongly worded platform that stood for principles Republicans could be proud of, such as military superiority "second to none," instead of Kissinger-style appeasement and retreat. Helms also called for an approach that was unthinkable to establishment Republicans: a direct attack on the policies of the incumbent Republican president.
Helms called his platform, "morality in foreign policy." It promised "a realistic assessment of the Communist challenge" and bluntly criticized any giveaway of the Panama Canal or unilateral concessions to the Soviet Union.
In an upset victory, the 1976 convention adopted the Helms platform repudiating the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger foreign policy of detente, and promising that the U.S. would "never tolerate a shift against us in the strategic balance." That was the moment when the Republican Party turned toward victory over the evil empire and laid the basis for Reagan's principled campaign four years later.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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