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Political Play of the Week

Change of heart

Change of heart

By Bill Schneider
CNN senior political analyst

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- What political figure said this about the AIDS epidemic this week?

Quote: "I know of no more heartbreaking tragedy in the world today than the loss of so many young people to a virus that could be stopped if we simply provided more resources."

Ted Kennedy? Jesse Jackson?

Guess again.

And if you guess right, you'll know who gets the political Play of the Week.

For decades, Sen. Jesse Helms has been public enemy No. 1 to AIDS activists.

Sen. Helms said in 1996: "I've never heard once in this chamber anybody say to the homosexuals, 'Stop what you're doing.' Do you realize that if they would stop what they're doing, there would not be one additional case of AIDS in the United States?"

In 1996, a group of angry North Carolina mothers who had lost sons to AIDS organized a campaign to defeat Helms' bid for re-election.

Jesse Helms
"I have been too lax too long in doing something really significant about AIDS," said Sen. Jesse Helms.  

In February of this year -- Helms' final year in the Senate -- he made this startling admission to a conference of Christian humanitarians. "I have been too lax too long in doing something really significant about AIDS."

Last Sunday, Helms wrote an article in The Washington Post calling for an additional $500 million in aid money -- to be matched by private contributions -- for the purpose of preventing pregnant women overseas, mostly in Africa, from transmitting the AIDS virus to their children.

What caused this change of heart in a senator widely suspected of not having one?

For one thing, singer Bono of the rock group U2, who struck up a friendship with Helms because of the senator's powerful position as ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Get down, Jesse!

"It's an extraordinary thing to have Jesse Helms throw a lunch for you because it's bad for both our images," said Bono. "But Helms cares deeply about what is happening in Africa." Helms added, "You'll never be an outsider. You'll always be a friend here."

Helms wrote in his article, "In the end, our conscience in answerable to God. Perhaps, in my 81st year, I am too mindful of soon meeting him."

This is the season of redemption.

If Sen. Helms is seeking to redeem himself from past mistakes, well, we can't offer redemption.

But we can offer the political Play of the Week.

Let's not overstate this conversion thing here.

Sen. Helms did say this month that he still feels the "homosexual lifestyle'" is the cause of the spread of AIDS in the United States and that spending on AIDS research takes money away from more important health problems.

Helms has not turned into a liberal. But in his waning days in public life, he may have accepted a new faith: compassionate conservatism.




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