Jesse Helms, the ideological outsider for the first eight years of his senatorial career, found the insider's role difficult to accept in 1981 as Ronald Reagan entered the White House and the Republicans took control of the Senate. The senator immediately reasserted his Lone Ranger status by speaking forty minutes on the Senate floor against the President's nomination of Caspar Weinberger as secretary of defense. Weinberger, he insisted, wouldn't be tough enough on the Soviets.
That was "only the first shot across Reagan's bow," one correspondent reported. Helms also opposed the appointment of Frank Carlucci as Weinberger's deputy. Then he declared full-scale war against State Department appointments by the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig. The senator also had to make what he called "a painful decision" when he supported Mr. Reagan's bill to raise the ceiling on the national debt by $50 million. This led Senator Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Hawaii) to observe wryly: "I understand we have a new liberal senator from North Carolina."
"Courtly even when flapping most furiously," wrote Helen Dewar in the Washington Post, " Helms sweeps down on the transgressors--from feminists and labor barons to errant diplomats and generals--like an avenging angel of old-time religion. And, to the extent that President Reagan departs from the scriptures, he, too, can expect thunderbolts. . . . He let no more than four hours of the Reagan Administration go by before attacking some initial appointments in order to make his case against any ideological backsliding by the new team."
Helms, of course, had always put what he called his "principles" ahead of everything else--party loyalty, personal friendships, and partial victories. Indeed, some of his colleagues had said with some exasperation that he "made a career of losing on principle" even as he, in the words of George Will, "set the outer limits on conservative activism." Yet the senator was not quite as comfortable doing this when his old friend Ronald Reagan was president as he had been when he could direct his thunderbolts at Jimmy Carter or even Gerald Ford. "It is a decidedly different feeling to be catching hand grenades instead of throwing them," Helms confessed to a North Carolina reporter. He never feared, though, that his opposition would destroy his relationship with the White House. "We have the kind of friendship that will endure," Helms said of Reagan. "He's not a yes man either. . . . We just like to send 'em a message."