Editorial: Remembering Jesse Helms: No more ‘Senator No’
This Salisbury Post editorial was first published on Jan. 7, 2003:
When Elizabeth Dole takes the oath of office today, it marks the official beginning of the Senate career for the lady from Salisbury — and the official departure of the gentleman from Monroe.
For the first time in 30 years, the Senate will be without Jesse Helms. “Senator No” will be no more. For many, that’s reason to mourn; for others, cause for celebration. Few, we can safely say, will view his exit with indifference.
“No American politician is more controversial, beloved in some quarters and hated in others, than Jesse Helms …” begins the brief biography of Helms in “The Almanac of American Politics.”
“… If he has not restored America to the state of the Monroe of his youth, he has succeeded in moving the country in a different direction from what his literal critics optimistically and he pessimistically believed was inevitable 30 years ago.”
Love him or hate him, Helms’ impact on national politics and the Republican Party has certainly been profound. When he entered politics, as a Democrat, Republicans were as rare as blizzards in the South and the region was in the throes of the transition from segregation to civil rights. He leaves with Republicans having dominated the region in the last election, and many credit (or blame) Helms for tapping into the cultural issues ó whether opposing busing, abortion or gay rights ó that at least partly spurred the defection of many Southern whites to the GOP.
“He uniquely gave voice to the cultural beliefs of many Southerners about the drift and moral decay of society,” Georgia Republican Party Chairman Ralph E. Reed Jr. told an interviewer. “He stood up and said things when other people didn’t have the guts to say it.”
That’s the sympathetic view. The harsher assessment says that Helms was primarily an obstructionist, especially through the first four of his five terms, who scoffed at progressivism while often using symbolic issues ó like the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday ó to pander to racial divisions in subtle ways. While conservative fans may remember his unwavering opposition to affirmative action as a principled stand, others will vividly recall the 1990 campaign ad showing two white hands crumpling a rejection letter for a job given to a minority.
History, of course, will be the final judge of Helms’ legacy, and whether he will be measured more on the cultural divisions he underscored and exploited, or the more substantive changes he wrought as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, where he often dictated policy, revised treaties and blocked presidential appointments.
It’s no surprise that Helms himself would prefer to be judged by the latter. The last news release issued by his office dwells only on that aspect of his service, noting changes he promoted at the United Nations and other foreign policy reforms. “… We made a difference,” he writes, “helping tell the American story of liberty and freedom …”
Perhaps the one thing that supporters and critics alike might agree on is that Helms doesn’t fit the mold of today’s media-attuned, poll-driven politicians. Love him or hate him, you always knew where the gentleman from Monroe stood — and it was a pretty good bet that he would be stubbornly standing there tomorrow.