One evening last March, Jesse Helms hunkered down in a skybox at a Washington, D.C., stadium, and took in his first rock show. His hosts, the supergroup U2, had extended a personal invitation to the 80-year-old senator, surprising political partisans and music fans alike. Declaring the show "the loudest thing I've ever heard," Helms nonetheless heaped praise on the band and noted that "people were moving back and forth like corn in the breeze."
The concert visit, strange and singular as it was, was part of a series of high-profile contacts between Helms and Bono, U2's frontman, and may have been part of a last-ditch campaign by Helms to soften his image in the history books. The singer, Helms says, helped him decide to support debt relief for poor countries and--in a turnaround for the senator--funding for AIDS research and prevention in Africa.
Helms' new posture on those issues drew measured nods of support from even some of his longtime critics--but could it really be true, they wondered, that as he retires, the renowned hardliner is going out in a kindler, gentler style? And even if he is, how much does it matter? Could a few moderate turns in the twilight of his career really change Helms' foreign policy legacy?
Those questions will be reconsidered as Helms prepares to step down from 30 years of service in the Senate come January. Perhaps to help shape the inevitable assessments of his role in international affairs, the Jesse Helms Center, a nonprofit museum and conference center in Wingate that pays tribute to the senator, has published a new primer on the matter.
The center, which was founded in 1989 and has a nominal affiliation with Wingate University, sponsors a lecture series, teaching seminars, and a Free Enterprise Leadership Conference for high school students. Exhibits at the center's new building, opened in April 2001, include tributes to North Carolina's main industries, a replica of Helms' Washington, D.C., office, and even a life-size mock-up of a section of the United Nations General Assembly--this despite Helms' career-long antipathy for the U.N.
In a July 20, 1998, article in the Nation magazine, Russ Baker, an expert on nonprofit organizations, characterized the center's work as a "peculiar combination of business boosterism, Helmsgilding and programmatic junk food." Peculiar or not, the center's programs have been sustained with millions of dollars in donations from private individuals, corporations and even a few foreign governments. Top Helms Center donors identified by Baker include R.J. Reynolds ($750,000), Philip Morris ($200,000), Glaxo Wellcome ($150,000), United States Tobacco Company ($100,000), and the governments of Taiwan ($250,000) and Kuwait ($100,000). The center's assets at the end of 2001 totaled $11,231,805, according to tax documents.
The center's latest publication, And the World Came His Way: Jesse Helms' Contributions to Freedom, makes no mention of Bono, AIDS or debt relief, nor does it discuss any other of the senator's recent feints toward the mainstream. Instead, its authors, Helms Center Director John Dodd with David Tyson, make the case that Helms hasn't come around--he's been unabashedly leading a conservative crusade all along.
That doesn't seem an outlandish claim, to anyone who's been following the senator's foreign policy record over the years. From his flacking for Chile's military dictatorship, to his support for apartheid-era South Africa, to his close ties to right-wing guerrilla groups and death squads in Central America, the senator's virulent anti-communism led him to believe that, as he once wrote, in foreign affairs "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"--no matter how odious the friend. (The book also takes up some of Helms domestic initiatives, but the bulk of it addresses his international work.)
Using a string of case studies from Helms' career, the book argues that the senator's greatest contribution to this country has been to buoy national security--that he repeatedly manned the barricades when the barbarians (chiefly communists and terrorists) were supposedly at the gate. Helms, the authors argue, set the stage for President Reagan's aggressive anti-communism and helped propel the conservative agenda in foreign affairs beyond the Cold War. The senator, they write, "understood, many years before his countrymen did, the threat posed by allowing terrorists to go unchallenged."
They stretch this argument to the breaking point in one passage, arguing that by supporting covert and overt operations against leftist governments and groups in Latin America, Helms spared the United States from waves of terrorism from the south. "One can only imagine what would have happened on 9/11 if Middle Eastern terrorists had unfettered use of terrorist bases within three hours flight time of the U.S.," they write. "One shudders to think of how many could have died if Middle Eastern terrorists could have moved heavy military equipment from bases in Nicaragua through Mexico and across the porous border into the United States."
A world in which a land invasion from Central America seems possible may seem like a fantasy world to many, but in the real world, Helms managed to advance much of his foreign policy agenda, before, during and after his 1995-2001 stint as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Along the way, he built his own "shadow State Department"--a sizable network of well-traveled staffers and international contacts that helped Helms swing policy right-ward in Washington and several foreign capitals.
This summer, Helms started writing his memoirs, and it appears that readers will have to wait until he's done for a detailed defense of his foreign policy activism. And the World Came His Way, a 137-page paperback, is a quick treatment of this huge subject, and it's rather selective in describing how Helms flexed his foreign policy muscle. It goes unmentioned, for example, that Helms built stronger, more long-term ties to Latin American dictators and thugs than did any other Cold War-era legislator. Consider just three names, picked from among dozens that bear mentioning, that don't appear in the pages of World Came His Way.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet: Pinochet seized power in a 1973 military coup, ousting Chile's elected government the same year Helms joined the Senate. For the duration of Pinochet's dictatorship, which ended in 1990, Helms played the part of Pinochet's man in Washington--even as the regime secretly executed and "disappeared" more than 3,000 citizens and tortured thousands more. In the mid-1980s, when the international outcry about the human rights abuses peaked, Helms paid Pinochet a visit and urged President Reagan to do the same.
Eden Pastora: The book devotes a chapter to Helms' steadfast support for the Nicaraguan Contras, a CIA-backed guerrilla group formed to destabilize the Sandinista government. But it fails to note that Helms backed a Contra faction led by Pastora, aka "Commander Zero," long after even the CIA quit supporting Pastora's group. By then, everyone knew that the group had been erratic and hard to work with--and word was spreading in Washington that members had struck an alliance with a Colombian drug runner who specialized in flying cocaine into the United States.
Roberto D'Aubuisson: El Salvador's pre-eminent paramilitary death squad leader during the 1980s, D'Aubuisson, like Pinochet, could count on support from Helms no matter how rough things got. While D'Aubuisson was plotting the kidnapping and murders of hundreds of academics, union leaders, church workers and a host of other "suspected guerrillas," Helms lobbied the State Department to grant him a visa to visit the United States and otherwise went to bat for him in policy debates.
If such ties were a liability, that didn't show up in the five Senate elections Helms won. And whether or not Helms has launched a charm offensive to close out his career, he's never expressed regret for backing such brutes, even as a series of truth commission reports, buttressed by declassified U.S. documents, has established their roles as criminals, killers, and indeed, terrorists.
North Carolinians will remember that Helms raised hackles back in 1994, when he commented that President Clinton, should he visit Fort Bragg, "better have a bodyguard." The remark was generally interpreted as a tongue-in-cheek dig, not a veiled threat--but coming from a senator who carried the torch for military strongmen that slaughtered civilian politicians, the meaning might be considered ambiguous indeed. At any rate, given the considerable legwork and lobbying Helms and his staff expended on men like Pinochet and D'Aubuisson, surely there will always be a bit of the macabre in complete accounts of the senator's role on the world stage.
The story isn't quite over, of course: Even as his last days in the Senate draw nigh, Helms will likely pursue a few final foreign policy initiatives. After months of convalescing from major surgery, two weeks ago he returned to Capitol Hill to serve out his final session of Congress. While he was away, the Foreign Relations Committee adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which will now be considered by the full Senate. The latest issue of Congressional Quarterly predicts that Helms, a diehard opponent of the treaty--which has languished in the Senate since President Carter signed it back in 1980--will make blocking it one of his last priorities.