Retiring Sen. Jesse Helms Caved to Pro-Israel Lobby Halfway through His Career

By Barnes, Lucille | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Retiring Sen. Jesse Helms Caved to Pro-Israel Lobby Halfway through His Career


Barnes, Lucille, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Lucille Barnes covers Washington, DC for U.S. and Middle East publications.

Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) will retire in 2003 after 30 years in Washington, DC. He became a synonym for negativism, mean-spiritedness, generally clothed in "yes ma'ams," and elaborate phrases that in no way masked his contempt for anyone who disagreed with him. As one writer put it, Senator Helms had become the Taliban rightwing of American obstructionism. Among his trademarks were an anti-government populism and an almost unique ability to obstruct even the most routine Senate business to squeeze further benefits for his North Carolina constituents. The public was the loser.

There were times when his mean-spiritedness completely overruled the false courtesy. During the Clinton administration, for example, Mr. Helms once remarked that if the president visited North Carolina he'd "better have a bodyguard."

After years of vicious innuendo, perhaps some of his earlier unpleasantries have been forgotten by younger readers. In 1984, however, Senator Helms made the most astonishing turnaround in American politics. The occasion was the closest election in Jesse Helms' already long career.

Prior to his run for re-election Jesse Helms had been described by the Israel lobby as the most dangerous opponent of Israel in the United States. In fact, his record on Israel was the most negative of any member of the Senate, he had the lowest rating of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of any senator.

As a result, the Israel lobby invested perhaps one of the country's biggest campaign contributions per capita in an attempt to unseat Jesse Helms. Pro-Israel political action committees poured an astonishing $222,342 into the campaign of Helms' opponent, North Carolina Governor James Hunt. Hunt's campaign secretary proclaimed that "Senator Helms has the worst anti-Israel record in the United States Senate and supporters of Israel throughout the country know it."

After squeaking by with the narrowest of margins, Jesse Helms promptly "saw the light." The senator gathered together as many of his North Carolina Jewish constituents as he could, and together they set out on a pilgrimage to Israel. There he had himself photographed wearing a yarmulke and kissing the Western Wall. Upon his return, the reborn Jesse Helms bombarded the media with a series of pro-Israel statements.

From that time on there was virtually no electoral trick to which Jesse Helms did not resort to increase the appropriations for Israel from the Defense Department, the State Department and perhaps half a dozen other different federal agency budgets.

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