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Assessing Helms

Marc Thiessen, President Bush’s chief speechwriter, who spent years working for Jesse Helms, has a fond remembrance of his late boss in the Washington Post today.No doubt other conservatives are feeling equally nostalgic for the late senator, a constant thorn in the side of liberals during his many years in Washington. Fred Barnes, for instance, wrote an admiring account of Helms’ influence in 1997 that the Weekly Standard website has posted today.

My own assessment of Helms, for what it’s worth, is considerably less positive. I don’t deny his important role in helping Ronald Reagan in 1976 and advancing other worthy causes over the years. But we should not gloss over the repugnant aspects of his record. Helms began his career as a segregationist, and he never really repented. Indeed he continued to use race-baiting, disguised to varying degrees, to win tough races up until the end of his career. He filibustered a bill in 1983 to create a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.–a genuine American hero–and he ran a notorious commercial in 1990 against African-American challenger Harvey Gantt in which a narrator proclaimed (over a picture of white hands crumpling a rejection notice), “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” As David Broder, who seldom met a Washington politician he didn’t like, put it when Helms retired in 2001, he was “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.”

Even on foreign policy, where his record was largely laudable and sometimes heroic (as in his championing of Soviet dissidents), there is room for conservatives to criticize some of his actions. Leave aside his petty and vengeful crusade to deny Bill Weld, an effective prosecutor and governor, an innocuous appointment as ambassador to Mexico. I am more troubled by his virulent attacks on virtually all international treaties and institutions.

Thiessen puts the best face on it when he writes, “He secured passage of bipartisan legislation to protect our men and women in uniform from the International Criminal Court. . . . He won majority support in the Senate for his opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” But he doesn’t address the obvious question: Is it in America’s interest to diss the International Criminal Court when it can be a useful tool for holding war criminals in places like Darfur to account? And does it make sense for the U.S. not to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty even while voluntarily refusing to test its own nuclear weapons, thereby earning international opprobrium for no practical reason?

Helms represented a strain of what my colleague Walter Russell Mead calls “Jacksonian” sentiment that puts a premium on preserving American “sovereignty” at all costs, even when it hurts American attempts to exert influence in the world. That is a sentiment that the Bush administration has sometimes fallen prey to, in the process complicating efforts to advance the President’s broader agenda.

In praising other Helms achievements, Thiessen notes that he “secured broad, bipartisan support to reorganize the State Department.” Actually his State Department reorganization, which he engineered in league with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1997, backfired. Helms sponsored legislation to fold the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department and to put the U.S. Agency for International Development under State’s aegis. Albright liked those changes because they enhanced her power and theoretically aligned those agencies in closer accord with U.S. foreign policy. But the practical result has been a further diminution of USIA’s and USAID’s resources and usefulness. The U.S. has paid a heavy price since 9/11 for not having better instruments of public diplomacy and nation-building available. In fact, we are continuing to pay a price for those shortfalls today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battlefields around the world.

That is a part of the Helms legacy that should not be applauded by conservatives–at least not by those who are interested in having the U.S. play a leadership role in the world.



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