The Last of His Kind in Congress ; with the Pending Retirement of Sen. Jesse Helms, Few Are Prepared to Inherit His Mantle as Lion of the Far Right

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor; and Patrik Jonsson | The Christian Science Monitor, August 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Last of His Kind in Congress ; with the Pending Retirement of Sen. Jesse Helms, Few Are Prepared to Inherit His Mantle as Lion of the Far Right


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor; and Patrik Jonsson, The Christian Science Monitor


For decades, he has been "Senator No," a man who could singlehandedly scuttle major appointments by presidents of either party or force a revamp of the United Nations budget.

Sen. Jesse Helms's retirement may well mark the passage of an era when US political conservatives were defined by what they opposed, as much as what they were for, and felt little need to market themselves as compassionate.

Throughout his career, the courtly, cherubic Republican from North Carolina has been proud to be Congress's most powerful throwback. ("I'm so old-fashioned I believe in horsewhipping," he said in a 1991 debate.) Fiercely anticommunist, suspicious of federal meddling, insistent on Senate prerogatives, he has been a scourge to the left and a lion to the right.

But if he is the Rambo of the Geritol set, as Bob Dole once said, he is also the last of his kind. Conservatives today can differ on issues from immigration to trade, and still call themselves conservative.

After Mr. Helms, there is no obvious defender of the flame. "What you'll see is a lot of people now competing to inherit his mantle," says Walter Russell Mead, a Council on Foreign Relations analyst who has studied Helms's career. "But the conservative movement is very divided now, and Helms was in a unique position."

At time of writing Helms had not officially announced that he plans to step down from the Senate when his term expires in January 2003. But widespread reports indicated that a statement from Helms to that effect was imminent.

Helms's mobility has been limited by health problems in recent years, and his wife is widely thought to want to return to live in North Carolina full-time.

By retiring now, Helms would clear the way for Elizabeth Dole, a longtime supporter and friend, to run for his seat. Mrs. Dole is popular in North Carolina, her home state, and the GOP arguably needs a strong candidate to win in a state where neither party is dominant.

Helms is a true son of the Tarheel State. The child of a police chief, he was born and raised in Monroe, N.C., 15 miles from the birthplace of Andrew Jackson, a similarly truculent and commanding figure. Helms never graduated from college. He came to statewide prominence as a journalist, first with Raleigh newspapers, later as a commentator for TV and the Tobacco Radio Network.

His editorials reflected the views of a South that was accepting civil rights grudgingly, at best. In 1963, he said on TV that "the Negro cannot count forever on the kind restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets." In 1965, he defended the rights of the owner of a segregated lunch counter.

Later, in 1990, the most infamous ad of his political career showed white hands crumpling up a job rejection slip, with a voice- over indicating the position had gone to a minority. …

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