Senator Jesse Helms
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TERENCE SMITH: Now, three views on Senator Helms and his political role. Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform; he is also a columnist for the conservative American Spectator magazine. Robert Kuttner is the co-editor and the co-founder of the American Prospect, a liberal and progressive biweekly magazine. Earl Black is a professor of political science at Rice University. He is the coauthor of “Politics and Society in the South” and “The Vital South.” Gentlemen, welcome to all three of you.
Professor Black, put Jesse Helms in some perspective for us if you will as a political figure, and as someone who played a role in the rise of the Republican Party in the South.
EARL BLACK: Jesse Helms is one of the last, perhaps the last unreconstructed southern conservative. He started out in the Democratic Party when the Democrats symbolized racial conservatism. He fought the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Then later on, in the early 1970s he made the transition by switching parties into the Republican Party. And he brought an aggressiveness I think to his conservatism because it started with racial conservatism. He always went to some form of racial politics when the going got rough. But he combined that with cultural, social conservatism, economic conservatism, and he did that in a style that combined almost an utter sincerity of statement with an approach to politics that basically seemed to me to operate without any acknowledgment that blacks were in the political system, and I think that is the final legacy of Jesse Helms. He symbolized a transition. It’s not a political style that I think is likely to be taken up by other Republicans, and certainly not by southern Democrats.
TERENCE SMITH: Robert Kuttner, from a liberal point of view, what is the consequence of that? Are you happy to see him announce that he will leave the Senate?
ROBERT KUTTNER: Oh, I would be happy to come to his retirement party. I think Jesse Helms brought a kind of coarseness and mean- spiritedness and a polarizing style to American politics at a time when most of the rest of the South was becoming more moderate, more conciliatory, more inclusive. I also think that Helms represents a kind of backdoor crude conservatism of the sort that clashes with the Bush administration’s attempt to look more moderate but then here is Jesse Helms who is out there in his anti-black, anti-homosexual anti-abortion, anti-foreign kind of politics. There is a clash between the kind of imagery that the Bush moderate conservatives are attempting to portray and the reality of Jesse Helms. So, in a sense– although I’m sure Grover disagrees with me– it may be actually better for the Bush administration that Jesse is stepping down because it’s a kind of crude conservatism that they would not really rather advertise as being associated with their brand of supposed moderation.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Grover Norquist, what has Jesse Helms meant to the conservative movement, and how will it be different when he is no longer in the Senate?
GROVER NORQUIST: Well, he came in in ’72. He has been, when he retires, he will have been there for 30 years – one-seventh as long as Republicans have been around, so he has obviously spent quite a period. He was a leader on reducing taxes. He certainly tackled the abuses of the United Nations successfully. They mentioned that Biden was the co-sponsor of his bill. One of the things that is interesting is the left screamed so loudly at Jesse Helms, then voted for his bills. Biden and others were complaining that he didn’t want to give dues to the United Nations until they reformed. Jesse Helms won that fight. We got the reforms we wanted. We saved hundreds of millions of dollars for American taxpayers, and Senator Biden cosponsored the legislation. He would stand up and insist on certain things, and everyone would kick and scream and call him names, and then it would pass 98-2. So I think one of the things that the left objects to so much is that he won so frequently.
TERENCE SMITH: Earl Black, I wonder if you see him in perhaps other terms as part of the conservative movement and the changes that have taken place both in that movement and in the South.
EARL BLACK: I think Jesse Helms, in many ways, is an anachronism. I say that primarily because unlike many of the other southern Republicans, Strom Thurmond, for example, who over the course of his career went from being a very staunch segregationist to someone who accepted the reality of racial change, voted for the civil rights, the Voting Rights Acts extension in 1982. Jesse Helms didn’t do any of that, and I think in that sense, his historical legacy is going to be closely connected to the politics of race, because what Jesse Helms set out to do was to demonstrate that he could win narrow victories in a state like North Carolina as long as he could get 60 to 65 percent of the white vote. And his efforts started not with the country club, but really more with blue-collar working- class whites and worked their way up.
TERENCE SMITH: Robert Kuttner, I wonder when you think of the point that Grover Norquist was making about whether you liked his politics or not, the Senator’s effectiveness in getting his position adopted in the Senate.
ROBERT KUTTNER: I think on some issues he was viciously effective. He was willing to embarrass his own party, willing to hold Republican nominees hostage for his protectionism on textiles, support of the tobacco industrial, for his support of favoritism in the agriculture bill so, yeah, he was also willing to flout the courtesy and the comity of the Senate in order to get his way. Now, you know, Grover Norquist may be proud to affiliate himself with those tactics and that kind of extreme reaction, but I think for much of the modern Republican Party Jesse Helms is and ought to be a kind of embarrassment, a real throwback.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you consider him such?
GROVER NORQUIST: No, Jesse Helms’ tactics are exactly those of Mitchell or Daschle’s. Daschle is every bit a master of the parliament and the refusal to allow things to go forward, it’s just that the establishment left doesn’t call Daschle names when he does that and the Republicans are more gentlemanly. The attacks from the left on Jesse Helms, who is an incredible gentleman and those people who actually worked with him and knew him, I include liberals, leftists, moderates and I certainly disagreed with him a great deal on his positions on international trade, for instance, where he was more protectionist, but he was a gentleman. He was happily married. A lot of people like to run around and say all Senators behave like Gary Condit. That is just not true. Jesse Helms was a gentleman. He was considerate. People talked about how easy it was and how pleasant it was to work with him even when you disagreed with him. Extreme leftists call him names. They’re reflecting themselves, not Jesse.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, he may be a gentleman, but not if you are black or not if you’re gay, or not if you are anyone of the minorities that Jesse Helms detests. He called, you know, Roberta Achtenburg, a Clinton sub cabinet appointee, a “damned lesbian,” and he said he was going to oppose her because she was a “damned lesbian.” So I don’t know what your definition of a gentleman is. But it’s certainly not mine, Grover.
TERENCE SMITH: Earl Black, when you look at his role in foreign policy, we’ve referred to it here what strikes you and how do you think it will be different, with him no longer a member of the committee?
EARL BLACK: Well, foreign policy is really beyond my bailiwick, but in general he reflects a conservatism there as elsewhere. He had strongly expressed views, for example, on the Castro regime in Cuba; and Helms was the type of politician somewhat rare in American politics who would tell you up-front what he believed, and then really not worry too much about what the media wrote about him or how he was portrayed.
TERENCE SMITH: Evidently he struck a chord among some of his constituents.
EARL BLACK: Well, I think that he did. Because in representing those views that was part of the cultural package back in North Carolina that gave a lot of satisfaction to the constituents who found in Senator Helms somebody they really thought represented their views.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask Robert Kuttner if what you think his impact has been on U.S. foreign policy, and how you think it may be different after him.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, I think he has been willing to hold American foreign policy hostage to his rather extreme views on things like the test ban treaty and international criminal courts, the role of the UN. He has been willing to be a real alley fighter to get his views adopted, even when they are to the right of most of the Republican Party. I would think that if the Republicans do succeed in taking back the Senate, the next Republican chair of the Foreign Relations Committee won’t be the same kind of alley cat that Jesse Helms was, and I think the more moderate wing even of his own party would prevail because there are, despite what Grover Norquist says, there are a few politicians who are willing to fight as dirty as Jesse Helms fights.
TERENCE SMITH: Are there conservatives in the Senate who would take up the cudgels of Jesse Helms?
GROVER NORQUIST: Let’s remember where Jesse Helms started. Jesse Helms early was there talking about the need to reform Social Security. Now Senator Moynihan and Senator Kerry agree with where Jesse Helms was 10 years earlier. He was out there talking about the “evil empire” before Reagan and before a lot of Democrats were willing to concede that that was the case. He has spoken clearly about the dictatorship in Cuba, when so many on the left have been sycophants for that dictatorship and apologists for it and refused to tackle it. They are embarrassed because on the Soviet Union, on Cuba, on Communism in Nicaragua, Jesse Helms was right and they were painfully wrong. And people died because the left was wrong about the Soviet Union and Cuba and the nature of the Nicaraguan communist regime, which is no longer in office.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Robert Kuttner.
ROBERT KUTTNER: Well, that is really a slander on American liberals; it was American liberals who started the policy of containing communism and there may be leftists alive in the world who are naive about communism, but it doesn’t describe anybody in the United States Senate, Democrat or Republican.
TERENCE SMITH: Earl Black, you used the word anachronism before. Is this the end of an era in the South or perhaps at least in North Carolina?
EARL BLACK: I think that there is. There aren’t any Republican Senators who have patterned their career after Jesse Helms. I don’t think we’ll see anyone who attempts to do that have much success and I think they will be more in the mold, if they’re successful, of Republican Senators from say Tennessee or Virginia than from Helms style of politicking.
TERENCE SMITH: Grover Norquist, do you expect, as some suggest here, that it will be a more moderate Republican group in the Senate without Jesse Helms?
GROVER NORQUIST: Well, I think you are certainly looking at a Senate that has moved in the center- right direction during the 30 years that Helms was there. He was an out-lier when he first came in. Who will replace him? Very likely Liddy Dole, who certainly supports a strong foreign policy, building a national missile defense, reducing taxes and lower regulation. I think the left would have a much more difficult time trying to trash or demonize Liddy Dole, than they do when they go after Jesse.
TERENCE SMITH: That is the future. I have to thank all three of you very much.