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Senator No

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Jesse Helms is the man who gleefully gives the President nightmares on foreign policy

May 22, 2000
Web posted at: 3:31 p.m. EDT (1931 GMT)

Where is the mecca of american foreign policy? It's not in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood, where the gray monolith of the State Department gazes out onto the Potomac, or in the trendy salons of Georgetown or the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. No, to get to mecca, you have to drive east on U.S. 74 to the village of Wingate, N.C. There you will find mecca on the right side of the road, just across from a Hardee's. It's the Jesse Helms Center, set up nine years ago as a shrine for the North Carolina Senator in an old white neoclassical home with a wide portico and fluted columns. Inside, Helms has a replica of his Washington Senate office. On walls hang hundreds of photos of him pumping hands with Presidents and foreign leaders. There's also a framed copy of his floor speech during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial and a letter from Spiro Agnew: Thanks for being "a truly wonderful friend."

Everybody who's anybody in U.S. foreign policy has made the pilgrimage to mecca: Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Hugh Shelton. Madeleine Albright packed the hall at nearby Wingate University, where Helms studied for a year, for a speech (during which she gave the Senator a T shirt emblazoned with SOMEBODY AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT LOVES ME). Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered a commencement address at Wingate with a beaming Helms sitting in the front row waving a fan against the broiling sun.

Annan and the others were paying homage. Helms, now 78, has been tormenting American Presidents and their diplomats for 28 years, mostly from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has voted against so many bills--from food stamps to the Martin Luther King holiday to practically every arms-control treaty--that critics nicknamed him "Senator No," a moniker he cherishes. He has blocked so many nominees that he can't remember all their names. (Robert Pastor was startled when he testified before Helms four years after the Senator had bottled up his nomination in 1994 to be ambassador to Panama: "He didn't seem to know who I was.")

And now the Clinton Administration finds its chances for a serious foreign policy legacy--on everything from arms control to the Middle East--under Helms' gavel. When he's in the mood, he seems happy to hand the Administration a big win, as he did with NATO expansion last spring. But most of the time he enjoys outfoxing the White House, as he did last year when he got the Senate to reject the nuclear test-ban treaty. At the end of next week, when Clinton flies to Moscow for his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he will be looking over his shoulder at the North Carolinian. Helms, worried that Clinton might agree to Russian demands that the U.S. curb its missile-defense program, has already told the President not to bring back an arms deal, particularly one that keeps the Antiballistic Missile Treaty alive. He will kill it in his committee. "I just wanted to stop that before it grew feathers," the folksy Helms said in a lengthy interview with TIME.

Albright is privately livid over the threat. Telling a President he can't negotiate a treaty crosses a constitutional line, she feels. But if Clinton wants any trophy out of Moscow, he will first have to get it past Helms. "Right now," says John Bolton, senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, "he's as powerful as J. William Fulbright," who headed the committee at the height of the Vietnam War.

Fulbright would roll over in his grave at the comparison. The Foreign Relations Committee is only a shell of what it was when the influential Arkansas Democrat was its chairman from 1959 to 1974. "The dirty little secret is they don't do very much now," says a senior Administration aide. Helms sticks to a few cold war issues like Russia and China and lets the panel's younger Republicans lead hearings on other subjects. But Helms' committee still approves State Department nominees and treaties, a power he has used in a masterly way to become a de facto Foreign Minister.

Clinton nominees quickly learned Helms' soft spots. "If you're ever being confirmed by Jesse Helms, always refer to your dead parents in your opening statement or have your kids at the hearing," says a former Helms aide. Albright won him over with stories about fleeing communism as a child and rearing three daughters as a single mom. "She's a classy lady," Helms still says. During his successful confirmation last summer, U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke introduced his mother, then tearfully wished his dead father could have been there.

This White House has found that Helms can be cultivated, but it has to be done as carefully as growing a prizewinning rose. Joe Biden of Delaware, the committee's savvy senior Democrat, last year got Helms to agree to allow the U.S. to pay $926 million of its arrears to the U.N., an organization Helms has reviled. But there was a catch: Helms insisted on U.N. policy changes that are still holding up the bulk of the payments. Before Holbrooke was sworn in, Helms asked the White House to appoint an alternate U.N. delegate: Irwin Belk, a feisty North Carolina buddy who heads a department-store chain. Clinton agreed, and Belk, who turned out to be a U.N. cheerleader, quickly became, as a top Administration aide chortles, a "national asset."

Belk talked Helms into delivering a speech to the U.N. Security Council on Jan. 20, a first for the Senator and the council. The next night Belk was host of a dinner for Helms with 130 of the U.N.'s diplomatic elite at the posh Metropolitan Club.

The cease-fire had begun. Helms reciprocated by inviting the Security Council representatives to the U.S. Capitol this spring. The 15 ambassadors sat politely as Helms delivered a civics lecture on Congress's role in U.S. foreign policy. Some doodled on notepads, but the Senator was glowing. "I think Jesse has decided he doesn't want his legacy just being obstruction," Biden suggests. After council president Anwarul Karim Chowdhury of Bangladesh larded him with praise, Helms buttonholed Holbrooke: "If Bangladesh wants anything from me, they can have it."

So, has Senator No mellowed to Senator Maybe? "Not once!" Helms thunders as if you've asked him whether he's ever tried on a Union Army uniform. "As Popeye used to say, 'I am what I am.'" Albright's cozying, for the most part, has only got Helms to treat her politely at hearings. The relationship, in fact, has cooled somewhat. Helms bristles when she doesn't respond to his letters promptly or when she calls to "consult" him on an issue she's already decided. Helms also hasn't lost his hard edge, particularly when it comes to civil rights, women's rights and gay rights. Last October, he had Capitol police throw out 10 Congresswomen who barged into his hearing room demanding he allow the committee to vote on a U.N. treaty that urges countries to end discrimination against women. Helms claims the accord would outlaw Mother's Day and legalize prostitution. (It wouldn't.)

Helms votes against legislation that hints at being liberal, but some of his best friends in the Senate have been liberals. He cried when Hubert Humphrey died. One morning he shocked aides by stopping a meeting to phone the office of then Democratic Senator Paul Simon. "I noticed this morning coming in that Paul's left-rear tire is low," he told Simon's secretary. "He better put some air in it, or he won't get home."

"To understand Helms' foreign policy, you have to look at it through a moral prism," explains his spokesman, Marc Thiessen. You also have to accept that the lenses haven't been changed much since the 1920s, when Helms was growing up just west of Wingate in Monroe. It was a sleepy town where cotton wagons circled the courthouse every Saturday, where flowers were put on the Confederate memorial to honor Southern chivalry. Helms, for instance, still thinks the civil rights movement was unnecessary. Foreign affairs for him is defined by the black and white of the cold war. He still speaks fondly of brutal Latin American dictators, like Chile's Augusto Pinochet, because they fought communism.

Clinton may want to build a foreign policy for the 21st century, but Helms is happy to remain its Tyrannosaurus rex. He taps out speeches on a typewriter, avoids diplomatic parties ("They're boring") and spends most nights at home with his wife of 57 years, Dorothy, catching up on paperwork. On TV, the only shows he likes are Touched by an Angel and JAG; he favors c-span. His favorite star on the latter is British Prime Minister Tony Blair when he appears in Parliament to answer questions. "My Conservative friends over there look like they have sat up all night trying to dream up questions to trip you up," Helms once told Blair. "And you stand there looking at this little book you got and blow them out of the water. What in the hell is in that book?"

The betting on Capitol Hill is that Helms won't run again when his fifth term ends in 2002. He suffers from a degenerative bone disorder in his hip and has had surgery for prostate cancer, a quadruple heart bypass and a double knee replacement. And because a neurological disease has numbed his feet, he zips around the halls in a scooter he calls "my Mercedes." But Helms considers these ailments little more than distractions. "I have never felt better," he insists. "I don't have any plans not to run."

Even though he will be 80, Helms is almost certain to be re-elected if he does run. Southerners tend to keep Senators in office forever. Even George W. Bush can't count on a free pass from Senator No if he wins the White House. Helms held up more nominees in the Reagan and Bush administrations than he has under Clinton. Helms will only say now, "No matter who's President, we're going to look at the record and find out what the ups and downs are." George W. might do well to pay a visit to mecca.

What Would Jesse Do?

Confronted with a changing world, Helms uses his own moral outlook to make policy. Do you agree with his approach? Take our quiz and see.

Question 1

The White House wants the U.S. to join the 165 other nations that have ratified the 1979 Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women. What would you do?

Choose an option:

[A] Use the bill as leverage to push the Administration to crack down on human rights abuses in China.

[B] Bottle the bill up in committee by insisting that it is the work of "radical feminists" and that it would legalize abortion and prostitution.

[C] Pass the bill.

Question 2

After years of dickering, the Russian parliament has finally passed the START II arms-control treaty, which has already been ratified by the U.S. Senate. Do you:

Choose an option:

[A] Welcome the move and embrace Russia's plans to cut its stockpile of nukes?

[B] Encourage the Administration to move to START III and amend the ABM Treaty?

[C] Effectively block the treaty from being implemented because the later "protocols" added to it could stymie plans to build a U.S. missile-defense system?

Question 3

Clinton wants to use sanctions to keep pressure on Fidel Castro, but he also wants to ease them at times to give Cubans a hint of what life without Castro might look like. Do you:

Choose an option:

[A] Gleefully embrace the plan since it would help shove Castro out of power--a longtime personal goal of yours?

[B] Allow only a trickle of humanitarian goods to be sent, and maintain penalties?

[C] Declare that Castro and Cuba are a cold war-era problem that Americans would do better to forget?

Question 4

Faced with growing Chinese power, the White House wants to soften Beijing's anti-U.S. rhetoric by granting China permanent normal trade relations with the U.S. Do you:

Choose an option:

[A] Respond by opposing the trade plan--and proposing increased military aid to Taiwan, a move that is sure to enrage Beijing?

[B] Make sure that any trade deal is larded with pork clauses that will help tobacco farmers back in North Carolina?

[C] Visit Beijing to personally tell Chinese leaders that the deal is a no go?

Question 5

The U.N. claims the U.S. owes $1.3 billion in back dues. But settling it has been tied up by disputes over an abortion rider and U.N. reforms. Do you:

Choose an option:

[A] Criticize the White House for risking the U.S.'s seat at the U.N. and move to get the back dues paid?

[B] Fuzz the abortion issue, give the U.N. $926 million, but only if it meets tough conditions?

[C] Get Senate colleagues to find money for the dues in their own pork projects?

What Jesse Did: 1.B 2.C 3.B 4.A 5.B

As Popeye used to say, 'I am what I am.' --SENATOR JESSE HELMS


Cover Date: May 29, 2000



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