Monday, July 07, 2008


Chances are you've already read "The Jesse Helms You Should Remember," an op-ed in The Washington Post by Marc Thiessen, a former Helms speechwriter. If so, you know Thiessen's argument -- that Helms was a lone voice for conservatism until more and more people saw the light. We read about the brave Jesse who, in the 1970s, "often took to the floor as the lonely opposition in 99-to-1 votes." And even after Ronald Reagan won a 49-state landslide, Jesse was apparently the only conservative in Washington -- or so Thiessen would have you believe:

What made Helms stand out was his willingness to stand up for his beliefs before they were widely held -- even if it meant challenging those closest to him. In 1985, his dear friend Ronald Reagan was preparing for his first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev when a Ukrainian sailor named Miroslav Medvid twice jumped off a Soviet ship into the Mississippi River seeking political asylum. The Soviets insisted that Medvid had accidentally fallen off -- twice. The State Department did not want an international incident on the eve of the summit. But Helms believed it was wrong to send a man back behind the Iron Curtain -- no matter the cost to superpower diplomacy. He tried to block the ship's departure by requiring the sailor to appear before the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he chaired then -- and he had the subpoena delivered to the ship's unwitting captain in a carton of North Carolina cigarettes.

Despite Helms's efforts, the ship was allowed to leave for the Soviet Union with the Ukrainian sailor aboard.

Except that brave ol' Jesse wasn't "stand[ing] up for his beliefs before they were widely held" -- in fact, the two newspapers he probably loathed the most, the twins of the "liberal media," agreed with him:

The Washington Post (November 25,1985) ran an editorial entitled "No More Medvids" and declared that the Border Patrol officials who returned Medvid to the Soviets had been guilty of "a serious failure of judgment." The New York Times (November 9, 1985) was more scathing, stating that initially Medvid's case was handled "disastrously" by officials who "acted with relentless ignorance."

So this wasn't Jesse against a liberal juggernaut; it was Jesse and quite a bit of establishment opinion against the administration of the #1 right-wing saint, Ronald Reagan, who didn't want to screw up a summit.


One passage in Thiessen's op-ed stuck out for Tom Hilton:

What his critics could not appreciate is that, by the time he left office, Jesse Helms had become a mainstream conservative. And it was not because Helms had moved toward the mainstream -- it was because the mainstream moved toward him.

That's certainly true in one way, as noted in the New York Times obituary for Helms:

His bruising style and right-wing politics won him many friends in his home state and across the nation, but he also created a legion of enemies. Millions of dollars were raised outside North Carolina both from those who flocked to his ideological banner and from those who ached to see him defeated. He never won more than 55 percent of the vote in five campaigns for the Senate.

"He was a very polarizing politician," said Ferrel Guillory, a veteran North Carolina journalist. "He was not a consensus builder. He didn't want everybody to vote for him. He just wanted enough."

And in The Boston Globe:

Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), said in the early '80s, "Since Jesse Helms started his warfare against those who disagree with him, there's a meanness in the Senate now that I don't think has been seen since the days of Joe McCarthy."

In that way, Helms was George W. Bush before Bush was, or at least he was the pre-Rove Rove. The politics we despise now, the politics of the relentless pursuit of wedge issues and utter unwillingness to compromise, was the politics of Helms. A mainstream conservative now is precisely what Helms was, someone who routinely grandstands and draws lines in the sand. They called Helms "Senator No," but now the entire GOP is the Party of No -- we see that every time a bill in the Senate needs 60 votes to break a filibuster. So yes, it really is his party now.

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