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
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
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. …