Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Wall Street Journal on the Death of Jesse Helms, 86

From the Wall Street Journal editorial:
Since he had to go sometime, Jesse Helms would have liked the idea of dying on July 4. The main cause of his life was defending liberty, especially against Soviet Communism, and so we wouldn't be surprised if he held out to make it to the early hours of our national holiday before dying yesterday at age 86.

Helms was best known as the five-term North Carolina Senator who drove liberals crazy before his retirement in 2002. But his most important role in history arguably took place in 1976, when he and political ally Tom Ellis helped to resurrect Ronald Reagan's fading run for President.

In late March of that year, they pushed the Gipper to make foreign policy more of an issue, including opposition to the return of the Panama Canal, helping Reagan upset President Gerald Ford in the North Carolina primary. Reagan's own advisers had all but given up after a series of primary defeats, but Helms and Mr. Ellis rescued the campaign. The upset nearly propelled Reagan to the nomination in 1976, but, more important, it set Reagan up to be the front-runner in 1980 after Ford lost to Jimmy Carter.

As a Senator, Helms was a forceful anti-Communist, resisting Nixon's detente of the 1970s and promoting U.S. support for dissidents behind the Iron Curtain and freedom fighters in Central America. In one episode in 1985, a 22-year-old Ukrainian sailor in the Soviet merchant marine jumped ship near New Orleans and tried to defect. In a shameful moment, the Reagan Administration returned him to Soviet control days before a U.S.-Soviet summit. Helms took up Miroslav Medvid's cause, and the Ukrainian became a priest after the fall of the Soviet empire. On a visit to the Senator's office 16 years later, Father Medvid credited Helms's public agitation with saving him from KGB retribution.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms also tried to reform the United Nations and other multinational bodies, to the extent that is possible. His purpose was to hold those institutions accountable to their own professed principles, which made him unpopular with elites but served U.S. interests. In 2000, he became the first Senator to address the Security Council. His tenacity on this score is missed in today's Senate, all the more so given the blind eye to corruption at both the U.N. and World Bank.

Helms was a conservative populist, and his campaigns were not above demagoguery. He was a protectionist, reflecting the textile interests in his state. He sometimes abused the Senate's advice and consent power against Presidential nominees – a habit the left has now adopted. His critics have a point that he sometimes exploited racial tensions in the post-1960s South, but Helms himself was no racist and his famous TV spot opposing racial preferences in employment in 1990 barely ran in North Carolina.

Like the political shift across the South and West in the last decades of the 20th century, Helms's political rise was a reaction to the collapse of liberal governance. He sought to reassert traditional American values, and above all to defend U.S. freedom against Soviet tyranny. Like Reagan, he saw more clearly than liberals the moral dimension of the Cold War. Like Reagan, he was a hero of that war.
I met Senator Helms while working on the National Endowment for the Arts issue. I found him to be not only polite and intelligent, but more memorably, someone who could work with Democrats and liberals to get things done quietly, without needing to take any credit. I remember one amendment to punish the NEA that that Senator Helms persuaded Senator Robert Byrd to sponsor--it passed overwhelmingly without much fuss. When arts groups tried to get a Minneapolis reporter fired for reporting on an outrageous performance art event at the Walker Center, he came to her defense, enlisting the support of Senator Paul Wellstone. The reporter kept her job...