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Jesse Helms Announces Retirement

Aired August 22, 2001 - 18:00   ET


SEN. JESSE HELMS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: A few weeks ago, my best friend for the past 59 years handed me a clipping quoting a 1973 statement by a longtime friend of a great many of us, Senator Sam J. Ervin, Jr. Senator Ervin is now deceased, of course. Dot Helms suggested -- well, instructed may be a better word -- that I share it with you on an appropriate occasion, and this is it.

That was six days before Christmas in 1973, and unless Senator Ervin were to run again in 1974, Senator Ervin's Senate career would end on January 3, 1975. And it was on that December day that Senator Ervin issued a public statement that ended speculation as to whether he would or would not seek reelection.

Now, Senator Ervin did not run again in 1974, and he later explained it this way, and I'm quoting. He said, "There's one inescapable reality that no man can ignore, and that is that time takes a terrific toll, which is of an increasing nature with those who live many years," end of quote. And then Senator Ervin added, "I would hate to be in the Senate and have to, in Kipling's words, 'force my heart and nerves and sinew to serve their turn long after they're gone'," end of quote.

Now, then, except for the fact that I am now already a few years older than Senator Ervin was when he made his decision on December 13, 1973 that he would not run for reelection in 1974, my family has counseled me that my situation today is not materially different from what Senator Ervin said in 1973. Here's what he said: "Intellectual honesty compels me to confront this inescapable reality." And then he meant that if he ran again he would be almost 85 in 1980 when his distinguished Senate career would end.

Now, the point is, I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 and was elected and lived to finish a sixth term. And this my family and I have decided unanimously that I should not do, and, ladies and gentlemen, I shall not.

And that's my formal announcement.

You see, if my health continues to be good when my present, fifth term ends at 2002 adjournment, sine die, as they put it, of the 107th Congress, I will be 81 years old, and I will then have served 30 years as a senator from North Carolina -- longer than any other senator elected by the people of North Carolina.

And not in my wildest imagination did it ever occur to me that such a privilege would ever be mine.

Now, to those who may be preparing news reports about this decision that my family and I have made, I will genuinely appreciate your considering doing me a few favors. Make clear my gratitude that I have been blessed since the first day I arrived in the Senate on January 3, 1973 with having had the finest, hardest-working, most dedicated young people serving with me every moment I've been a United States senator.

They are joined with us because they are conservative, God- fearing young people, genuinely willing to help all North Carolinians who, in so many instances, have had such desperate crises in their lives and who have turned to us for help. And without hesitation and without fail, these young people -- we call ourselves the Helms Senate Family, by the way -- these young people often work around the clock, and many times they have worked through the weekends to help people who needed a helping hand.

So it has been they, this Helms Senate Family, who have unfailing made certain that the estimated 150,000 North Carolinians or more, and many citizens from other states who brought their problems to us, were served promptly with genuine interest in making certain that the problems were solved, if at all possible.

As early members of our Senate family have moved on to responsibilities with other branches of the government, or with businesses or educational institutions, new young people were eager to join in our efforts to serve the citizens of our state and nation. And what a blessing.

Now, I love these young people. I love them all. And they have known it, whether they have served in our offices in Raleigh, or Hickory or Washington. And today their careers are all over the landscape: federal; judges and teachers and business leaders and bankers and some have gone on to theological schools. And now some are top advisers to the present president of the United States, George Bush.

And needless to say, Dot Helms and I have thanked the Lord countless times for those remarkable young people and women -- young men and women.

I have often shared a commitment with young people, a commitment that I made to myself on Election Night 1972, and my commitment that night was that I would never, ever fail to meet with a young person or a group of young people who wanted to see me. Now, that 1972 campaign enabled me to meet personally hundreds of young men and women whom otherwise I would never have met. And having been the beneficiary of more than 100,000 -- 100,000 young visitors during the past 29 years, I can assure you that the future leadership of this state and our nation is in good hands.

And third and last, but certainly not least, there is no way I can adequately express my gratitude to the thousands of people who pitched in and gave their support and prayers in all five of my elections to the United States Senate. Without that help, and without the prayers of so many, I would never have made it, and I know it.

Now, all of this is a long way of saying that I'm not running again and that I thank you most sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, for letting me have my say.

But let me make myself perfectly clear, as a former president of the United States often said: I have just confirmed speculation that I will not seek reelection next year. But I am by no means announcing my retirement, because a great deal of work lies ahead of the United States Senate this fall and next year, when there will be much significant legislation.

For example, the Senate will be taking up and renewing the farm bill which comes around just about every five years, and you don't need me to explain to you how important this particular farm bill will be to the farm families all across North Carolina.

In addition, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- yes, I'm no longer the chairman -- but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider, among other important matters, significant legislation that will set the course for the future of America's defense system. And then there's the necessity of monitoring the implementation of the Helms-Biden demands of reforming the United Nations -- which, by the way, has already saved the American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now, in the years left to Dot Helms and me, we want to enjoy more time with our children and grandchildren, and we will do that. And needless to say, Dot and I intend, the Lord willing, to be more actively involved in trying to be helpful to that remarkable foundation down at Wingate.

Now, I don't know precisely how to say this, but Dot and I hope that one way or another one, we can continue as proud citizens to be helpful to the great people of North Carolina.

One thing is for sure: We will never forget you. And we shall always be grateful for all that you have meant to us.

Thank you, dear friends. God bless you. And as Ron Reagan always used to say, God bless America.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Jesse Helms at the age of 79 indicating there in Raleigh, North Carolina age is something he can no longer fight, and he will retire from the Senate pending the election next year in the year 2002.

The conservative Republican for North Carolina perhaps best-known for his fervent stands, though. Helms is anti-abortion, in favor of school prayer. He also advocates funding cuts for the arts, sometimes railing against certain exhibits. And he is a staunch anti-communist, a view shared by many of his constituents, which begs the question -- and a lot of questions, including what happens to his seat in North Carolina. Let's go to Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst, for more on that. Can the Republicans keep it or do the Democrats here have a fighting chance? First, the political matter, Bill. What do you think?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they do have a front-runner in that race. There's a draft Elizabeth Dole movement going on right now in North Carolina. She's actively considering the race. She's under a lot of pressure from her party to run. She appears interested, and she'd have to be considered the front-runner.

There are some other Republicans who may run: Former Senator Lauch Faircloth, who lost his re-election bid last year in North Carolina; the Republican candidate for governor, Mr. Vinroot, who lost a race last year also in North Carolina; and one Democrat, the secretary of state, who says she may run. Her name is Elaine Marshall. She's the only declared Democrat, but one would have to consider Elizabeth Dole as the front-runner at this point.

HEMMER: Back to the man, Jesse Helms. Certainly, a unique character in Washington and back home in North Carolina. You've watched him for a number of years. How would you classify this man, the way he operates?

SCHNEIDER: He operated in a way that politicians rarely operate in anymore. He's really a divisive politician, a man who is a candidate, a politician of convictions. We just saw him on television. We rarely see Jesse Helms on television, because unlike most politicians, like his colleague John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democrat in the Senate, he doesn't use the media very much.

Basically, he communicates by stating his positions, working no compromises. He's a staunch conservative. He's not a coalition- builder, and he's won very close elections in North Carolina really by rallying his supporters.

He practices us-versus-them politics, and most politics today is the bland leading the bland.

HEMMER: Interesting the television comment about staying away from the media for the most part. Back in 1972, basically that's how he got his start, being a political commentator down in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In Washington, though, Bill, the Democrats have had a target on Jesse Helms' back for quite some time. With him out of the picture next year, is there another target there?

SCHNEIDER: Another target for Democrats -- well, look, they really don't have anyone like Jesse Helms to fill that role for Democrats as the "Great Satan" of the right.

Newt Gingrich was a strong contender, but look, he resigned from Congress. He's out of the picture right now. Some Democrats are hoping maybe John Ashcroft will step in. They described him as to the right of Jesse Helms, but he has been very, very cautious and not been very provocative. So he hasn't been able to fill that role.

Let me tell you something, Jesse Helms has done something else, for which he should be remembered. Without Jesse Helms, it's quite likely President Reagan would never have become president, because in 1976, when Ronald Reagan ran against Gerald Ford, he was sinking out of sight, and Jesse Helms rescued Ronald Reagan in the North Carolina primary, which Reagan won. He defeated Gerald Ford, and from then on he was a national figure.

So if Helms can claim credit for anything, he helped make Ronald Reagan president of the United States.

HEMMER: A footnote to history. Bill Schneider in Washington, thank you, Bill.

Also on the story, even though the Soviet Union no longer exists, Helms has kept up his anti-communist crusade. His No. 1 target has been Cuba. Right behind that, China. And he's been able to do that, as you see on the bottom of the screen, with his involvement on the Foreign Relations Committee, chairman between 1995 and the year 2001.

How are people in Havana reacting? Our Havana bureau chief, Lucia Newman, now joins us live from the Cuban capital with more from there.

Tell us, Lucia, why is it that Jesse Helms is so vilified, not just by the Cuban government, but a number of Cubans who live on the communist island?

LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Bill. Well, undoubtedly Jesse Helms' name is a household word in this country as in perhaps no other country in the world, even perhaps the United States.

His name is synonymous with Satan, in fact, for many Cubans, who know that he has been working so, so hard to rid of this country of communism for so many years.

He was the man who co-authored the Helms-Burton legislation, which further tightened the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, and many ordinary Cubans don't like that embargo. They see it as something which hurts them, and actually in many ways helps the Cuban government stay in power.

So he is not popular with many Cubans, whatever their political persuasions, Bill.

HEMMER: Lucia, does the Cuban government believe with Jesse Helms out of the picture and out of Washington, the U.S. Senate, do they believe that the U.S. position may shift toward their country?

NEWMAN: Well, under other circumstances perhaps they may have, but they know that there is another American with impeccable anti- Castro credentials just waiting to take over, to pick up the baton, and that's none other than President George Bush himself. President George Bush they believe here is very beholden to the Cuban-American community because of the way he was elected, because of the fact that Florida was so crucial. And they also know that President Bush's brother is up for re-election in Florida, which also happens to be the state where the majority of Cuban-Americans live.

So while they may be happy that Senator Helms is leaving, I don't think they expect much relief any time soon, Bill.

HEMMER: You said something rather interesting in your first answer about being portrayed as Satan. Tell us more about that as it reflects upon Jesse Helms.

NEWMAN: Well, Senator Helms has been known for saying things like "I am putting another nail in President Fidel Castro's coffin when I pass this legislation," for example. He also said many, many times that he didn't care if President Fidel Castro left office horizontally or vertically, as he predicted that President Castro's days were numbered. Well, now it turns out that it's the senator who's leaving, and many Cubans here are gloating, because they believe that he has somehow helped make life even more difficult for ordinary Cubans than it is already -- Bill.

HEMMER: Lucia Newman, our Havana bureau chief, live from the Cuban capital tonight. Thank you, Lucia.



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