- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

When Jesse Helms speaks, the world usually listens and, boy, did it perk up when the senator from North Carolina announced last week that he would not seek another term in the U.S. Senate, making his retirement effective in January 2003. Fidel Castro, for one, must doing a victory polka.

Mr. Helms had, of course, lost most of his famous bite when the Democrats took the Senate Foreign Relations Committee away from him as a result Sen. Jim Jeffords' defection in May. Still, for a lot of people, the 79-year-old Mr. Helms' announcement did not come a moment too soon. Vitriolic is the word that comes to mind to describe the overall reaction here and abroad. Make that vitriolic and unfair.

The Washington Post, for instance, reported in one of its front-page editorials sorry, news stories, that Mr. Helms was a "product of the segregationist South." That description is pretty vague, but nasty sounding enough. Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal filled a whole column with the kind of anger liberals used to reserve for Richard Nixon. The Atlanta Journal's Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker challenged President Bush in a column, "to make clear to the Republican Party that it cannot tolerate another Jesse Helms." New York Newsday editorially opined that "A clear-eyed view of the conservative Republican's career shows that he has been a destructive and divisive force in the nation and the world for a generation. No one should miss him."

That's a heap of abuse for one senator.

Mr. Helms' brand of conservatism is indeed unapologetic, and one that does not bend with the times. His detractors have focused on his opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which Mr. Helms as a radio commentator liked to blast. Easy as right and wrong seem in that equation today, at the time Mr. Helms was not the only Southern Democrat to oppose the movement. It might be recalled that Former Vice President Al Gore's father, a powerful senator from Tennessee, himself voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is not an excuse, but just a bit of perspective. And the sad fact is that the civil rights movement is today invoked in the name of a host of liberal agendas. During his time in the Senate, which he joined in 1972 after switching party registration to the Republicans in 1970, Mr. Helms has fought every one of the collectivist -isms, from liberalism at home to Marxism in Central America and communism in the Soviet Union.

Another reason for the widespread bile is that it fell to Mr. Helms to preside over the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate for the greater part of the Clinton administration. In this capacity, he performed the role of the conservative, in the words of William F. Buckley, "who stands athwart history yelling 'Stop' at a time when no one is inclined to do so or to have much patience with those who do." It was for good reason that Mr. Helms became known as "Senator No."

Mr. Helms' stewardship of the Foreign Relations Committee has often unflatteringly been compared to that of William J. Fulbright, sponsor of the young Bill Clinton's first stint as a Washington intern. Mr. Fulbright's view of the Soviet Union was as follows: "Insofar as a nation is content to practice its doctrines within its own frontiers, that nation, however repugnant in its ideology, is one with which we have no proper quarrel." Appeasement, by contrast, was not Mr. Helms' style.

Mr. Helms has had an agenda of his own, and one that was far more worthwhile. He now receives credit for having forced some measure of reform on the United Nations where his name is roundly despised, naturally. Same thing goes for the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Helms has often been accused of being isolationist and obstructionist. However, this impression has been the result of his opposition to multilateral treaties of no benefit to the United States, like the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and institutions like the International Criminal Court. As for the Kyoto treaty, everyone in Washington knows it would have gone down to certain defeat in the Senate.

Furthermore, while Mr. Helms is often accused of holding up Clinton appointments, this tactic was the only means available to him to force the administration into cooperation with his committee, which the White House regarded as irrelevant and irritating, a nuisance. Well, Mr. Helms found ways to make the State Department and the White House pay attention.

Far from saying gleefully goodbye to Jesse Helms, we should remember that he did much good, often by standing in the way of public folly and arrogance.


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