by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
key elements of his right-wing unilateralism embraced by the current Republican administration, Jesse Helms should be able to end three decades in the U.S. Senate next year with considerable satisfaction.
In his role as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the 1980s and 1990s, Helms helped steer the Republican Party steadily to the right, even as his old-fashioned racism became increasingly embarrassing to the New Right which he helped spawn.
He announced his decision not to run for re-election next year in a televised address to his fellow North Carolinians last week. His current term ends in 2003.
"While Jesse Helms may be retiring from public life, the ideas and values he represents are gaining, not losing, importance in American politics," according to Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"Views he has long espoused that were once dismissed as crackpot have now become established U.S. foreign policy," Mead said in a published commentary today.
"In many ways, he was the John the Baptist of the unilateralist school for foreign policy," according to Chris Madison, a former aide to Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "What the Bush administration has been saying, he's been saying for years: "Treaties are not the be-all and end-all of foreign policy;" 'the Cold War may be over, but we still don't trust these people'; and 'we don't need other countries to go along with us.'"
Key to his effectiveness was his unwillingness to compromise, a rarity in the clubby, "go-along, get-along" Senate -- many of whose members, unlike Helms, aspire to national office.
"He had no interest in becoming president or secretary of state which would have required him to moderate his views to appeal to a national audience," said Madison.
His willingness to defy his colleagues while working closely with the major leaders of the New Right made him a formidable force. "Apart from Ronald Reagan, the 79-year-old five-term North Carolina Republican was the most important conservative politician of the past three decades," wrote Albert Hunt, a liberal political columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, Helms's role in the 1976 Republican convention was widely credited with making possible Reagan's capture of the party's presidential nomination and subsequent election in 1980.
Called by former senator and 1996 Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole the "Rambo of the Geritol Set," Helms throughout his career pursued a black-and-white vision of the world in which shades of grey simply did not exist.
the black hats were everyone from Communist strongmen (especially President Fidel Castro) to their liberal dupes and fellow travelers, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, multilateral treaties, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The white hats, on the other hand, consisted of true-blue anti-Communists including former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chiang Kai-shek, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and the U.S. military, whose causes he championed unceasingly.
Analysts detected some mellowing of the cantankerous crusader in the late 1990s as he moved to endorse aspects of what President George W. Bush has referred to as "compassionate conservatism."
In the past year, for example, he has supported giving more money for anti-AIDS programs and debt relief for Africa. He even attended a rock concert at the personal invitation of debt-relief campaigner Bono, although he later complained that the music "was so loud I couldn't really understand what he was saying."
He also worked with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in devising a program for "reforming" -- some say debilitating -- the United Nations in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. arrears to the financially strapped world body.
Given the extent of the damage he wrought to Washington's comity with other nations and peoples around the world over his 30-year career, however, these moves to the center cannot be seen as "a fundamental part of the story," according to I.M. "Mac" Destler, a foreign policy expert at the University of Maryland.
"To the world, he became the bogeyman, something which probably pleased him very much," said Madison, the former Senate aide who is now with the Council for a Livable World, a disarmament group.
"He had no interest in recognizing the qualities that other cultures offer the world," said Michael Hunt, a diplomatic historian at the University of North Carolina. "He was strongly nationalist and certainly deeply ethnocentric: You can't get entangled in the world; you have to change the world on your terms."
His willingness to use hardball tactics -- and every parliamentary trick available to him -- often alienated his fellow senators, particularly more moderate Republicans. This never appeared to bother Helms who, as Foreign Relations Chairman, did not hesitate to vilify and veto presidential nominees who came before his committee for confirmation if they were, in his view, morally unfit.
These included homosexuals, liberals, nominees who had publicly criticised Helms, and even Republicans who, like former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as ambassador to Mexico, believed that women should have the right to obtain abortions.
One of Helms's monikers was "Senator No."
"Helms reveled in the politics of personal vilification," according to Hunt, who noted that Helms publicly warned Clinton that he would need a "bodyguard" if he visited a North Carolina military base.
His tendency to put personality over substance resulted in a surprisingly skimpy legislative record. The most famous law which bears his name is the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the 40-year-old trade embargo against Cuba but whose extraterritorial provisions against foreign investors in Cuba are so radical that even the Bush administration has refused to enforce them.
This mattered little to his right-wing backers. Indeed, his feisty persona probably added to his appeal among his core constituency, the rural and small-town white population of tobacco farmers, woodfolk, and textile mill workers of North Carolina who consistently returned him to office with 52-56 percent of the vote.
Helms' outspokenness, distrust of big government, and backwoods obstinacy reflected a populism which has long been a feature of the state, according to Hunt, the university professor, who added his anti-government posture naturally is reflected as well in his opposition to multilateral organizations or anything that might threaten national sovereignty or "states' rights."
A native of the state, Helms became a radio reporter after serving briefly in the navy during World War II. He became a television commentator known for his anti-communist and anti-black rights views in the 1960s. Like many white southerners unhappy with the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights, he became a Republican in 1970 and was elected to the Senate on Richard Nixon's coattails in 1972.
Helms has been plagued with a series of debilitating health problems over the past decade, including prostate cancer, heart disease, and a form of arthritis which makes it painful to walk.
August 27, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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