Exclusive: Jesse Helms: The Indispensable Man Who Made President Reagan Possible

by JOEL HIMELFARB July 11, 2008

Aside from Ronald Reagan, no one did more than Sen. Jesse Helms to advance the cause of freedom in the world in the past 30 years. President Reagan's contributions - staving off a communist takeover in Central America, denying trade credits and technology to the Communist Bloc, and overseeing a military buildup that ultimately won the Cold War - are well known. But the indispensable role played by the North Carolina Republican, who died July 4th at age 86, may as well be ancient history to many Americans, especially to members of the under-30 You Tube generation, many of whom were not even born when Helms began his Senate career in 1973. It's time for that to change. Helms was a giant in late 20th century American politics, and aside from Ronald Reagan, the most important figure in the modern American conservative movement. You cannot understand American politics today - particularly the sorry state of the Senate - without understanding the contributions of Jesse Helms and the enormous vacuum created by his retirement five and a half years ago.

Most people don't realize that without Helms, there almost certainly never would have been a President Reagan, an end to the Cold War, or for that matter the victory over inflation or the job growth of the 1980s, or Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. None of that would have happened if it had not been for the actions of Sen. Helms, attorney Tom Ellis and the National Congressional Club, Helms' Raleigh-based political organization, in the spring of 1976.

The Republican Party was in grave trouble - seemingly headed for political oblivion. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a staunch conservative, had lost in a landslide in 1964. Richard Nixon - at the time the only Republican who had been elected president since Dwight Eisenhower 20 years earlier - had imploded in Watergate. Before that, Vice President Spiro Agnew had been forced to resign in disgrace after pleading "no contest" to corruption charges.. In the 1974 elections, scores of congressional Republicans, (at that point, a minority party in both Houses of Congress for more than 20 years) were swept out of office in the anti-Nixon, post-Watergate tidal wave.

The new Democrat Congress wasted little time in cutting off aid to South Vietnam, paving the way for communist North Vietnam to overrun its neighbor in April 1975 and become the first nation to defeat the United States on the battlefield. In the White House, Gerald Ford had become the "accidental" president. Despite his best efforts and intentions, Ford (who had never been elected to national office) was too weak politically to prevent the Democratic Caucus, dominated by a huge freshman class of Left-wing ideologues, from cutting off South Vietnam. But Ford, a moderate Republican, was nonetheless seeking a full term as president in 1976. Helms, then a freshman senator, discussed the possibility of forming a third party with other conservatives. But he decided instead to support Reagan, the former governor of California, who challenged Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries.

Throughout most of February and March of that year, Reagan seemed headed for political oblivion. He had lost five consecutive primaries, his campaign was $2 million in debt and Republican leaders around the country were urging him to concede to Ford and get out of the presidential race. Until then, Reagan had avoided running a "negative" (i.e. substantive) campaign against Ford. Instead, he focused on feel-good themes dealing with his record as California governor. But when the campaign reached the Tar Heel State, Helms and Ellis understood full well that Reagan would lose if he failed to spell out his substantive differences with Ford. They took the reins of the North Carolina campaign, with dramatic success: Reagan came to North Carolina, campaigning 12 days there compared to two for Ford, and pounded home his criticisms of Ford's détente policy with the Soviet Union and of negotiations underway to relinquish the Panama Canal. It worked: Reagan upset Ford by a 52-46 margin.

Helms "is the man most responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980," notes Reagan biographer Craig Shirley. According to Shirley, author of Reagan's Revolution, the definitive account of the 1976 Reagan campaign: "Had Helms not engineered Reagan's stunning upset win in the North Carolina primary in 1976, Reagan would have dropped out and faded into oblivion. Reagan staged a furious comeback as a result, losing the nomination to Gerald Ford by only a handful of votes. As a result, Reagan became the frontrunner for the 1980 nomination. None of this would have been possible without Helms. One man simply decided to change history."

But even that barely scratches the surface of Jesse Helms' extraordinary record of achievement during his 30 years in the U.S. Senate - achievement overlooked in mainstream media outlets like The Washington Post. Marc Thiessen, Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesman for Helms from 1995-2001, wrote an op-ed in The Post pointing out what paper missed in its obituary of Helms. For example, he won passage of bipartisan legislation to protect American men and women in uniform from the International Criminal Court. He stopped the Clinton Administration from concluding a new anti-ballistic missile agreement during its final months in office - paving the way for today's deployment of America's first defenses against ballistic missile attack. He led the successful effort to bring the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into NATO. He won bipartisan support to reorganize the State Department and bring much-needed reform to the United Nations. He helped win passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, expressing strong support for liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein.

In the twilight of his Senate career, Helms won surprising praise from an unlikely source: Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, penned an April 22, 2001 New York Times op-ed titled, "Why the World is Better for Jesse Helms." Mead wrote in part: "There is another role Mr. Helms plays that infuriates internationalists but also strengthens the country's ability to conduct an active international policy: He is the key populist, conservative skeptic of the foreign-policy establishment's pet schemes for international cooperation and intervention...American public opinion will not take foreign policy on faith. It therefore falls to Senator Helms to infuriate well-meaning internationalists by subjecting the Kyoto Protocol or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or other key projects of the liberal internationalists to acid skepticism. In doing this, Senator Helms not only speaks for the tens of millions of Americans who don't trust the foreign-policy establishment; he also opens the door to a true national consensus behind important foreign-policy goals."

But in reading obituaries of Jesse Helms in the mainstream media during the past week and a half, I'm struck by how few of the writers seem to grasp the realities as Professor Mead did. To cite but one of many examples, only the most superficial treatment is being given to the case of a Ukrainian sailor named Miroslav Medvid, who in 1985 jumped off a Soviet ship into the Mississippi River seeking political asylum. The Soviets insisted Medvid had "accidentally" fallen off, and the State Department didn't want an incident on the eve of a summit between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But Helms thought it wrong as a matter of principle to send a man back to the Gulag, so he tried unsuccessfully to block the ship's departure with a subpoena from the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he chaired. In 2000, Medvid came to Washington, where he had an emotional meeting with Helms. After his return to the Soviet Union, he had been locked in a mental hospital for the criminally insane and the KGB tried to drug him. But Medvid was spared by a sympathetic nurse and was eventually released. Today he is a priest in Ukraine. Medvid said he believed that the KGB refrained from torturing him as ferociously as they might have otherwise because they were afraid of incurring the wrath of Sen. Helms.

Aside from Ronald Reagan himself, no one did more to advance conservative principles than Jesse Helms, and no one did more to defend American sovereignty and stand for freedom against dictators and tyrants than the senior senator from North Carolina. He was a one of the great statesmen of the late 20th century, and he will be missed by any thoughtful person who cherishes liberty.

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Joel Himelfarb is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. The views expressed here are his own. Feedback: editorialdirector@familysecuritymatters.org.

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