A Lion on the Right; Jesse Helms' Mixed Legacy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Lion on the Right; Jesse Helms' Mixed Legacy


Byline: W. James Antle III, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Early in the 1976 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan was reeling. The former governor of California had lost the first five primaries to Gerald Ford and had come to North Carolina to make his last stand. That's when Sen. Jesse Helms came to his aid, blasting the Ford administration for its support of the Panama Canal Treaty.

Mr. Reagan won the North Carolina primary and began an impressive streak of victories. Although he did not capture the nomination that year, Mr. Helms and the Tarheel State saved his political career. In 1984, Mr. Reagan would return the favor as his coattails dragged Mr. Helms across the finish line in his closest Senate race.

The connection didn't end there. Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms were arguably the two most important conservative elected officials of their era. Together, they represented the two faces of the American right - one sunny and optimistic, the other angrily defiant of liberal rivals. Mr. Helms represented the latter, a side of conservatism today's Republicans are often reluctant to showcase.

Both Mr. Helms' role in the conservative ascendancy and the more troubling aspects of his legacy are probed in historian William A. Link's massive book, "Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism." Mr. Link is no conservative and the Jesse Helms Center panned the book for "falling victim . . . to the liberal bias of the author." Yet "Righteous Warrior" does at least attempt a fair portrayal.

Through his Congressional Club, Mr. Helms employed direct mail and a whole host of new media techniques to expand North Carolina's Republican Party and the national conservative movement. The pioneering political operation used scathing indictments of liberals and tartly worded appeals to mobilize evangelical Christians and push the party to the right on a wide array of economic, social and foreign policy issues.

A fervent anti-communist, Mr. Helms helped move the Republican Party beyond detente in the Cold War and managed to bring dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the United States over the objections of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He was instrumental in the adoption of the Republican Party's first unequivocal pro-life platform plank.

He was a tireless whistleblower against government waste and federal subsidies to artists who mocked traditional values. Mr. Helms also carefully scrutinized foreign-aid expenditures and was a blunt critic of the United Nations. …

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