- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

Jesse Helms traces his rise to power in the Senate in a memoir, “Here’s Where I Stand” (Random House), which arrives in stores tomorrow. In this exclusive excerpt, he recalls the political landscape of Washington in 1973.

The Raleigh News & Observer dubbed me “Senator No.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I certainly took it as one.

There was plenty to stand up and say “No” to during my first of five terms representing the people of North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.

That was why I had sought election in 1972 — to try to derail the freight train of liberalism that was gaining speed toward its destination of “government-run” everything, paid for with big tax bills and record debt.

My goal, when my wife, Dot, and I decided I would run, was to stick to my principles and stand up for conservative ideals.

After a dozen years as news executive and on-the-air editorialist at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, I wasn’t interested in a popularity contest and surely didn’t care about anything the big newspapers called me. I saw how they constantly ridiculed conservative ideas and conservative people.

By some twist of logic, the big newspapers decided that the way to be “progressive” was to toss aside the underpinnings of our society. Anyone who thought differently was dismissed as “out of touch.”

I’ve been called a “troglodyte” on more than one occasion when I angered some writer or some group who wanted me to get out of their way and let them proceed with their unrestrained liberal agenda.

In my first Senate campaign, the press took a look and decided the slogan “He’s One of Us” was some sort of attack on the nationality of my opponent’s parents. As it turned out, the bad press back home — where I also worked as a sportswriter and city editor as a young man — was just the beginning of the fire I was to draw.

A gentleman I knew back in Wingate, N.C., often said it wasn’t a good idea to get in an argument with folks who bought ink by the barrel and paper by the ton, and I agreed with that.

I decided not to waste my time debating my critics. Over the years, I saved the U.S. Treasury a lot of money on press secretaries, until I eventually had to have one to deal with the deluge of media requests.

My staff wasn’t always as thick-skinned as I was. One new aide was all set to fire off a response to a highly critical editorial. I had to tell him, “Son, just so you understand: I don’t care what the New York Times says about me. And nobody I care about cares what the New York Times says about me.”

The young fellow came to understand that I answer first to my Creator, then to my conscience. If that brought conflict or created some pressure, that was the price of doing business the way I thought was right.

Principles vs. preferences

Too many politicians think that the road to success lies in being “open.” Too often, that is simply another word for “hollow.” I believe leaders must have principles and must stand up for them.

I told my young staff that the way to be successful in politics and remain true to your principles is to know the distinction between your principles and your preferences.

On your principles, you should never yield; you should be prepared to be defeated. But on your preferences, you’d better be prepared to compromise because that’s where you demonstrate that you can engage with others.

An awful lot of politicians never understand the difference. They compromise their principles, and they fight to the death on their preferences. They end up being frustrated and unsuccessful — and failures at achieving their objectives.

When I took my seat in the Senate in January 1973, there were 42 Republicans, one Conservative, one Independent and 56 Democrats.

I was 51 years old and probably not much like many of those other Republicans. They enjoyed being considered moderates, even liberal. There were more conservatives over on the Democratic side.

The Republicans were so outnumbered that they had become comfortable with the idea that they never would gain control of the Senate. Instead, they created a sort of gentlemen’s club, for which I had no affinity. They didn’t want to make any waves; I wanted to drain the swamp.

I believed then, and I believe now, that people who will not surrender their principles to assure their popularity can get things done. I did not have time to waste because there were critical issues facing us, not the least of which was the direction of the war in Vietnam and the negotiations for peace.

From my first day in the Senate, I stood ready to defend President Nixon and was prepared to do so publicly, as well as to urge him to protect our allies in South Vietnam.

Using the rules

I hoped to find a way for conservatives to work together without regard for party labels and to force change.

Thanks to Sen. James B. Allen, Alabama Democrat, I learned that my greatest ally in changing the Senate was the Senate itself. The rules made it possible to bring to the floor issues that most senators would just as soon have ignored.

One revered tradition was to dispose quietly of almost any issue that senators didn’t want on their voting records. Controversial bills languished in committees or were disposed of in anonymous voice votes. Constituents often did not have the faintest idea that they were routinely re-electing politicians who voted in ways totally opposite to the way the constituents assumed they were voting.

I believed then, and I still believe, that people, especially senators, should have the courage of their convictions. Senators should be “on record” about what really matters to most Americans (e.g., school prayer, spending the people’s money on obscenities, killing unborn children, raising taxes, giving aid to our enemies, protecting the Boy Scouts, ending a self-perpetuating welfare system).

My staffers laughingly but proudly told me that one of the most dreaded phrases on Capitol Hill was “Senator Helms has an amendment.” Over the years, I offered literally hundreds. Some, of course, did not pass. My detractors, including newspaper editors, assumed such losses were failures. In fact, they were small victories on the way to big ones.

I was picking up steam by Nov. 29, 1973. That day, I introduced three amendments to the Social Security Act and demanded a vote. One amendment, calling for a balanced budget, was tabled 46 to 43, but our little group of conservative senators was pleased by such a close vote on an amendment offered for the first time — and by a freshman senator.

I wanted senators to take stands publicly. I was willing to leave it to their constituents to decide what would happen next.

Getting organized

When senators were required to stand up and vote so the people at home could see how they really felt about the issues, it rattled a lot of cages in Washington. And when senators had to run on their records instead of their rhetoric, things really began to change.

I worked closely with Sen. James Buckley, the Conservative from New York. I recall sitting on the Senate floor with him Jan. 22, 1973, when a page delivered the news from the Associated Press wire of the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade.

Jim and I immediately agreed to work together to do all we could to oppose this misguided and tragic decision.

I had noticed the way Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts would come to the floor, with several other senators following, prepared to talk all afternoon. Ted and the liberal Democrats were organized and had a plan.

Several of us conservatives, regardless of party, thought that we needed to organize a response. Today, the Senate Steering Committee is made up of 35 conservatives, all Republican right now.

By the midterm election of 1994, when Republicans took control of both the House and Senate, the conservative movement was growing stronger by the day. Its accomplishments became obvious.

Some liberal Democrats even tried to sound like conservatives on those Sunday-morning talk shows. I enjoyed watching them struggle to explain away the decades of tax-and-spend that finally had caught up with them.

A postscript

I said it often during my years in public life, and I will say it again: We will not long survive as a nation unless and until we restore the moral and spiritual principles that made America great.

America was attacked by terrorists September 11 because of what America stands for — our dedication to life, liberty and justice under God. As we defend those principles abroad, let us also renew them here at home. As we go after the terrorists, let us get about the task of restoring the moral and spiritual foundations of our country.

No matter how successfully we prosecute the war against terrorism, no matter how brilliantly we prepare for threats of the future, we never will be truly secure if we do not return to these principles.

We must instill in our young an understanding that theirs is a nation founded by Providence to serve as a shining city on a hill. America is a light to the nations, spreading the good news of God’s gift of human freedom.

Copyright (c) 2005 by the Jesse Helms Center. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

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