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The last hurrah



U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms is, once again, snookering some of the best and brightest members of the "fourth estate" in North Carolina. Columnists for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer--the state's largest newspapers--have penned predictions that the Republican senator will run for his sixth term in 2002, and Helms himself has left the door open, saying he'll announce a decision by fall.

Helms is not a viable candidate for re-election in 2002 for one predominant reason: He has serious physical limitations, as any viewer of senate floor events on C-SPAN can determine for themselves. His numerous reported afflictions from head to toe have included prostate cancer; quadruple heart bypass surgery and operations to clean arteries; double-knee replacement surgery; hip bone disorders; and now peripheral neuropathy. It is not credible that such an inactive person could run and win statewide election in a large state in the television age.

Although he is younger than Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) by almost 20 years, Jesse has great difficulty in getting around in Washington. Not infrequently, he misses events at which he is expected, with a cover line put out by his staff--such as a conflict in the senator's schedule. His recent assignment to a hideaway in the catacombs of the Capitol makes it possible for Helms to be less often seen traveling by motorized scooter from the Dirksen Senate Office Building to the Capitol for votes. It also makes him more mobile over a shorter distance with his walker when making his way to the floor of the senate.

Much has been made in the press of a late February fundraising letter from Helms hinting broadly that he might crank up another campaign: "The growing feeling is that Dot and I ought to be ready for one more campaign," was the quote in The News & Observer. This was an obvious Helms' ploy to avoid looking like a potential lame-duck chairman of what--until very recently--was an evenly divided Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter also helps Helms raise a war chest that he can use to boost a favored successor in the 2002 Republican primary: e.g. multimillionaire hog farmer and former U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

The fundraising appeal was followed closely by a February 27 letter from the Senate's "house doctor," John Eisold, testifying to Helms' remarkable health. Eisold rather routinely issues such letters near election time for senators whose health is in question. His attestation regarding Helms is preposterous: "Overall, you remain in good health. No restrictions are placed on your activity." No senator, other than Thurmond, is experiencing health problems comparable to Helms, and with the former, it is largely a matter of old age. In fact, Thurmond presents a more vigorous image on the senate floor than Helms.

Just last month, Jesse told about 400 people attending the state Republican Convention that he and his wife, Dot, will make a joint decision on whether he will run again in 2002. An announcement by fall, he said, should give fellow Republicans enough time to put together a campaign if he decides against trying for a sixth term.

But "I ain't saying I ain't running yet," Helms added.

Other evidence cited for a Helms run in 2002: newspaper ads that the state Republican Party has financed this year, showing the senator surrounded by schoolchildren in his Washington office. (The irony is that he has voted to gut several federal programs benefiting children--presumably because they were not "faith-based.")

When asked about the ads, North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Bill Cobey made it clear that he is interested in softening the negative image cultivated by Helms over the years when cannibalizing his rivals, so as to mitigate the carry-over damage to the GOP in the next senate election. "Elected officials are the face of our party," Cobey said at the convention.

Cobey would also like to avoid, as long as possible, the cat-and-dog fight that is likely to break out in the Republican primary race for the nomination next year between U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, twice-unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Richard Vinroot, and Faircloth.

A related factor in Republican calculations is the growing stature of North Carolina's freshman Democratic Sen. John Edwards--a finalist in Al Gore's search for a vice-presidential running mate, despite the fact that Edwards has only been in office since 1998, when he defeated Faircloth. There is no doubt that Edwards makes Helms look bad by contrast, playing a prominent role in debates on campaign finance reform, a patients' bill of rights, and the environment.

The state GOP has been spreading the canard that Edwards does not represent "traditional Southern values." Presumably, those include making sure that no African American ever sits on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond--an embarrassing crusade by Helms over the years. It is an interesting fact that while Helms bleeds over human rights violations from China to Cuba to Sudan--although he refused to support military action to stop "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans--he has never cared about civil rights at home.

Edwards understands what many Republicans--and some Democrats--in the state do not. The balance of political power lies with suburban moderates in Piedmont metropolitan areas from Charlotte to Greensboro to Raleigh who split their tickets. Many of them are relative newcomers to North Carolina. And most are not likely to help re-elect Helms, or elect a clone to take his place. This is a most compelling political reason for Jesse to avoid running again.

A majority of voters cannot be counted on to reward a politician so willing to serve large corporate interests on everything from scuttling carbon dioxide emissions standards, to facilitating airline mergers that result in consumer-gouging ticket prices. Nor are they receptive to Helms' post-Cold War, neo-isolationist positions. The senator, for example, opposes all measures to control and reduce nuclear weapons, and has even suggested that the United States resume nuclear testing outside international treaty provisions.

So what are the main motivating factors for Helms in the game of acting like he may run again? Not to do so would set loose a power and influence drain in Washington from an identifiable lame-duck incumbent who would be less able to have his ideological way on policy and personnel matters with the Bush administration.

Part of the game involves an image makeover. Of great importance to Helms, was his recent enshrinement as international "statesman" at the Jesse Helms Center expansion ceremony at his alma mater, Wingate University. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the featured speaker at the April 28 fundraising event, seeming to suggest a comparison of Helms with Winston Churchill.

There is actually a "director of marketing" going around peddling the Helms Center's importance. No doubt, that director has been busy grappling with how to deal with the "two faces of Jesse" problem: the courtly old gentleman who is moved by international humanitarian appeals from Bono of the rock group U2, versus the pol who has launched some of the most hateful, racist and homophobic campaigns in modern times. In the "crown jewel" rotunda of a new addition to the Helms Center, a timeline is to feature key events in Helms' career. Will it include his vote against a national holiday named for Martin Luther King Jr.?

Perceived lame-duckism would undercut current fundraising efforts for the Helms Center in Washington and North Carolina. An event that raised $250,000 in Raleigh in February featured Vice President Dick Cheney as the honored guest.

Funds for the Center are shielded from public scrutiny, even though Helms--whose wife and daughter sit on the board of the governing foundation--is indirectly receiving contributions to his favorite charity from foreign sources and "K Street" lobbyists. The governments of Kuwait and Taiwan have contributed substantial amounts to the Helms Center in the past.

It is a myth of long standing that Helms is an independent legislator free of entangling alliances with special interests in Washington. Legislation moving through Congress requiring public exposure of donors to presidential libraries would force the Helms Center and similar entities to reveal contributors. The facts are likely to be an embarrassing revelation of the purchase of access in Washington.

One final point. If there be any doubt about Helms' lame-duck status, there is this little in-house "secret" not widely reported in the press: During the 104th Congress, the Senate Republican Caucus agreed to term limits on committee chairs and ranking members--no more than six years as chair or ranking member of any given committee, effective January 1997. The first time this will come into play is in January 2003, when GOP committee chairmen (or ranking members, if the Republicans are in the minority) will have to step down.

Of course, one Republican death or party switch in the senate--as in the case of Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.)--instantly deposes Jesse from his perch. Were you present for the revolution? Jeffords' defection from the GOP bumped all Republican chairmen from their positions. That single act of courage, combined with the news of the departure of top aides from the Foreign Relations Committee staff, signals the fading out of Helms' career of obstruction and destruction in the senate. As ranking minority member of the committee, he will not even be the "go-to guy" for the Bush administration, which had much rather deal with more moderate Republicans like Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

In sum, what we are observing is Jesse Helms' "last hurrah," contrary to various attempts to make it appear otherwise. Alas, if only he would run again, his career would end in defeat at the polls.


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