On September 27, 1986, Senator Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina) accidentally inserted a dial-a-porn message into the Congressional Record. The transcript began:
Hi. I’m Nellie from High Society and I’m so busy getting ready for my June wedding. Why don’t you and I have a private shower….
Helms’s office later explained that the text had been included through “staff oversight,” but it tells us something about his files. In public debate, Helms will make use of almost anything. When a New York congressman raised questions about the federal tobacco program, which Helms supports, he ridiculed the critic’s sex life. In 1983, he accused Martin Luther King, Jr., of “action-oriented Marxism”; when Senator Edward Kennedy defended King on the floor of the Senate, Helms taunted Kennedy about the deaths of his two brothers. After Soviet planes destroyed Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Helms, who had been on another KAL flight, claimed that he was the Russians’ real target.
Helms seems to delight in confrontation. “The people who talk about consensus are the blame-America-first crowd,” he told the annual fund-raising dinner of his political action committee, the National Congressional Club, in February. “Wasn’t it Pontius Pilate who reached a consensus with the mob that crucified Christ?” Helms inspires biblical thoughts in others. Former Democratic National Chairman Charles Manatt has called him the Prince of Darkness; the Reverend Jerry Falwell once said: “I believe Jesse Helms could almost walk on water if he tried.”
Hard Right is the first full-length biography of Helms.1 Furgurson is a syndicated columnist and the Washington bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun. His book contains many dates and names, and little analysis; it raises important questions about its subject without beginning to answer them. Helms’s first goal in public life was to overturn the political order in his home state. He has done that. The question arises, What is his goal now?
Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr., was born in 1921 in Monroe, North Carolina, a rail junction and cotton-farm center of about twelve thousand people not far from Charlotte. Monroe in the 1920s, Furgurson writes, had “five churches, four Republicans, one pool hall, and one whorehouse.” Helms’s father was town police and fire chief, and a much respected member of the local Baptist church. A forbidding figure, six feet five inches tall, “Big Jesse” seems to have been the major formative influence on his son. Helms remembers him as “the wisest man I’ve ever known”—and was stung deeply by anonymous quotes in Hard Right that suggest, without offering specific details, that Big Jesse was brutal in his dealings with Monroe’s blacks. “If my father was a racist,” he said when I recently talked with him, “if he had been hated by the black people of Monroe, why is it that at least a third and maybe pretty close to a half of the people in the church [for Big Jesse’s funeral], and it was filled that day, why were those people black?”
No athlete, Big Jesse’s boy played the tuba and sousaphone. But his real ambition was not musical. “From the time I was a little boy I wanted to be a newspaperman,” he said recently. “At age nine, I was sweeping out the printing office of the Monroe Enquirer and the Monroe Journal.” Helms spent a year at Wingate College, a Baptist junior college near Monroe, and another at Wake Forest College, a Baptist four-year college then located outside Raleigh. He left school when he got a job on a newspaper.
Raleigh, North Carolina, in the 1940s was a sleepy state capital with a population of about 55,000. North Carolina at the time enjoyed a reputation as a moderate, forward-looking southern state. In 1949, the political scientist V.O. Key, Jr., wrote that
Willingness to accept new ideas, sense of community responsibility toward the Negro, feeling of common purpose, and relative prosperity have given North Carolina a more sophisticated politics than exists in most southern states. The spirit of the state has not tolerated strident demagoguery.2
In his first job as a reporter for The News and Observer, Helms found himself in one of the centers of what Key called the “progressive plutocracy.”
He rejected such genteel southern progressivism, and he spent much of his life leading a revolt against what it stood for. The News and Observer, a morning daily, then (and to a large extent today) was the major paper in the state. During Helms’s apprenticeship, the paper was edited by Jonathan Daniels, the essayist, novelist, government official, and liberal Democrat with a national reputation. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was one of the most prominent spokesmen for the New Deal tradition in the South—he served for a time on the Democratic National Committee.
Helms left The News and Observer for a better job at the paper’s afternoon rival, The Raleigh Times. He married The News and Observer’s society editor Dorothy Coble, and absorbed the conservative politics of her father, Jacob, a wholesale shoe salesman in Raleigh. After a tour as a navy recruiter during the war, he became news director of WRAL Radio, owned by an outspoken conservative named A.J. Fletcher, whom Helms recalls as a “second father.” He was also influenced by an eccentric rightwing radio commentator in Raleigh named Alvin Wingfield, Jr., who subscribed to Pravda and opposed parking meters as unconstitutional. (He later killed himself in despair at the growth of communism.) Helms covered local news, lugging a sixty-pound wire recorder around town. His nightly program “News of Raleigh” soon became serious competition for the two daily papers.
In 1950, Helms and Daniels were on opposite sides in the bitter senatorial primary between Frank Porter Graham and conservative lawyer Willis Smith. Graham was the president of the University of North Carolina, the center of the state’s progressive tradition. His liberalism was so mild he opposed setting up a fair employment practices commission. Daniels persuaded Governor Kerr Scott to name Graham to a vacant Senate seat; he then unofficially took a leading part in Graham’s campaign to win election to a full term.
Graham defeated Smith in the first primary, but fell short of a majority. On Wingfield’s advice, Helms broadcast an appeal to Smith supporters to rally at the candidate’s house to persuade him to seek a runoff; and in the bitter, racist campaign that followed, Helms advised Smith on press relations and advertising. Now, thirty-seven years later, questions linger about the tactics used to defeat Graham. Handbills were distributed in which it was alleged that Graham “favors mingling of the races.” Most damaging of all, a doctored photograph seemed to show Graham’s wife dancing with a black soldier. Furgurson quotes an eyewitness, now dead, who claims that Helms himself used scissors to outline the figures. Helms and his friends angrily deny any part in the forgery. But there is no doubt that some of Smith’s supporters scurrilously played on white prejudice and sexual fear of blacks.
After Smith’s victory, Helms went to Washington with him. “I came up here [to Washington] and watched The News and Observer attack Mr.Smith day after day,” he told Furgurson. “I was here and knew what he was doing, and was astonished at what they said he was doing, and I resented it. That was the beginning.” Helms’s subsequent career can be seen as a quarrel with his home-town newspaper that has broadened its adversaries to include the Senate, American foreign policy, and CBS, which he tried to take over by mobilizing a nationwide campaign of conservatives.
Helms returned to Raleigh in 1953 as executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and editor of its magazine, Tarheel Banker. He wrote a monthly column, which concentrated on the evils of civil rights, school integration, and communism. Helms won election to the city council in 1957, and was an obstreperous, conservative presence in city government.
Meanwhile, A.J. Fletcher, his broadcasting mentor, had obtained the region’s first television license; in 1960, he made Helms executive vice-president and editorial director of WRAL-TV. In November 1960, Helms began broadcasting the editorials that would make him a political power.
Helms broadcast five-minute editorials during the evening and morning news five times a week from 1960 to 1972. The commentaries were rebroadcast on FM radio across the state and reprinted in one hundred weekly newspapers. By the mid-1960s, they had made Helms a statewide celebrity. College students gathered in their dorms to jeer him; but in homes and stores across eastern North Carolina, listening to his daily broadcasts was almost a religious ritual. The enormous popularity he built during the early 1960s was based, in large part, on the anger of southern whites at the attack on segregation and the “southern way of life.”
Helms began his attack on Martin Luther King in his seventh editorial, and he kept up a steady flow of criticism of King until—and beyond—his assassination. “Dr. King’s outfit [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference], we keep remembering, is heavily laden with leaders with proven records of communism, socialism, and sex perversion, as well as other curious behavior,” he said in November 1963.
Helms’s broadcasts mocked not just King’s movement, but blacks in general: he told cannibal jokes, he warned of black crime in northern cities, he reported that rural black children came to school hungry and dirty. Jews who took part in the movement or were sympathetic to it, such as Allard Lowenstein or Harry Golden, then editor of The Carolina Israelite, also came in for criticism, as did “the existing political entity, known as Israel.” Helms kept up his attack on Israel until 1985, after a close election contest in which pro-Israeli groups and prominent Jews contributed heavily to the opposition; only then did he publicy announce his support for the Jewish state.
He was also perfecting his polemic against “the media,” at first attacking The News and Observer, then, during the Goldwater presidential campaign, denouncing “the national press” for espousing the same liberal values he had come to detest in the editorials of Jonathan Daniels. By 1971, Helms was saying,
had they been able to foresee the incredible technology of today’s distribution of news and opinion, it is just possible that the Founding Fathers would have placed a limitation on such a fearful centralization of journalistic power as exists today in America.
During the early years, WARL signed itself on the air as “the Voice of Free Enterprise.” In his editorials, Helms talked of a continuing struggle between “free enterprise” and “socialism.” In his eighth broadcast, he proclaimed that the word “liberal” was “a polite way of saying socialistic.” Not long afterward, he reminded his viewers that the Soviet Union was ruled by “socialists who call themselves Communists.” The equation of liberalism, socialism, and communism came up over and over again.
As the 1960s wore on, Helms’s rhetoric became more and more alarmist in tone. During the riots that followed King’s assassination, Helms broadcast a prophecy that
one of these days, and it may be sooner that we think, the lawabiding citizens of the republic are going to push aside all of the phony political doubletalk about “movements” and “marches” and “nonviolence” and “civil rights.”…Sooner or later the dam will burst, and a tidal wave of pent-up resentment may well spread from coast to coast.
In 1971, rich friends began a movement to “draft” Helms for the Senate, and in February 1972, Helms resigned from WRAL to run. Opposing a Greek-American congressman, Nick Galifianakis, he adopted the slogan ELECT JESSE HELMS—HE’S ONE OF US. During that campaign, Helms, a lifelong Southern Baptist, says he experienced a sense of God’s guidance and love that deepened his fundamentalist faith. In the Nixon landslide of 1972 he won by a margin of 54 to 46 percent. Big Jesse, a few months before his death, was able to see his son sworn in as a member of the US Senate. Furgurson writes that both men shed tears.
Days after Helms was sworn in, the Supreme Court ruled abortion legal; Helms’s crusade against Roe v. Wade became a model of the tactics he would use in building the New Right. By tacking “pro-life” amendments onto unrelated bills, he forced his colleagues to vote on the abortion issue again and again; these votes were then used against them at election time. Helms has never hesitated to embarrass his peers on issues that would build a national constituency—the Panama Canal, school prayer, busing, “secular humanism,” and other now-familiar New Right causes. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 1975, he said, “I think we will find our majority in presenting our views in terms that are easily understood by persons who are worried about what is happening to them, but are outside of active political participation.”
By doing so, the right could enlist
“not only our trusty band of ideological conservatives, but nonpolitical people who are grappling in their own communities with issues such as pornography, the right to life, school textbooks, community control of schools…. We must not forget that the most fertile ground for political action lies with the millions who are completely disgusted with both major parties.”
Helms has also helped set up many of the New Right’s network of PACs, foundations, and think tanks. He has a genius for fund raising. In his 1978 campaign for reelection, against weak opposition, he raised more than $6 million—then a record. In 1984, he raised a staggering $16.5 million, an all-time record for a Senate campaign. An analysis of campaign documents in 1985 by the Institute for Southern Studies and The North Carolina Independent showed that more than 60 percent of Helms’s money came from donations of $200 or less—the small givers who respond to direct-mail appeals. The survey found that “most of Helms’s biggest givers are risk-taking entrepreneurs, owners of medium-sized, often family-dominated businesses, producers of hard goods rather than services.”
In effect, Helms has successfully combined the support of the “nonpolitical people” he described in 1975 with that of rich backers of the old far right. Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, for example, gave the 1984 Helms campaign $4,000—and gave $90,000 to a Helms-related foundation, the Institute of American Relations, which advocates right-wing policies in Latin America and has financed some of Helms’s trips there.
The 1972 election left Helms with a small campaign debt. With his friend Tom Ellis he sent out a direct-mail appeal for help; it was so successful that it grew into the National Congressional Club, a computerized direct-mail fund-raising machine whose headquarters are in Raleigh. The club is the nation’s richest political action committee; it raised and spent more than $15 million in 1986 alone. Without Helms and the club, Ronald Reagan would very likely not be president today. In 1976, Reagan seemed about to drop out of the presidential race after defeats in the primaries in several northeastern states. Helms urged Reagan to remain in the race until the North Carolina primary; and with Helms and Ellis guiding his campaign (among other things, they circulated a handbill with a photograph of then Senator Edward Brooke, a black man, and warning that Ford might make him vice-president), Reagan scored an upset in North Carolina and went on to lose by a surprisingly narrow margin to Gerald Ford at the convention. This made him the party’s frontrunner for 1980.
Reagan repaid the favor in 1984, when Helms faced a strong challenge from Governor James B. Hunt, a North Carolina progressive backed by a united Democratic party and $10 million. Helped by Reagan’s popularity, Helms came from far behind to defeat Hunt. (Polls showed that Helms’s most effective issue was his opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday; this time his campaign handbill showed Hunt together with the Reverend Jesse Jackson.)
But Helms has not hesitated to challenge Reagan when it suits him. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has again and again delayed Reagan’s foreign policy appointments; the administration has been obliged to negotiate compromises, often agreeing to appoint conservatives selected by Helms to other posts. Such is Helms’s influence over the State Department that during his 1984 campaign for the Senate, Helms was able to produce a statement of support signed by twenty-two serving US ambassadors—a remarkable violation of diplomatic tradition.
A master of the Senate rules, Helms has used the same delaying tactics to force changes in bills on the floor. Last year, for example, he delayed approval of the CIA’s appropriations bill until its sponsors agreed to adopt a secret annex that reportedly reorganizes the agency’s activities along lines acceptable to the right.3 In 1985, Helms and the club tried to “become Dan Rather’s boss” by persuading conservatives to buy stock in CBS—one of the few major American institutions so far to have defied Jesse Helms.
In 1986, Helms was powerful enough to persuade the Senate Republican Caucus to make him, rather than Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking minority member of the Foreign Relations Committee. He now controls the committee’s minority staff and must approve its budget. He is included in White House briefings and must be consulted in the scheduling of hearings and the selection of witnesses. When committee bills come to the floor, Helms manages the Republican share of debate time. He is in effect the Republicans’ shadow spokesman on foreign policy, and if the Republicans regain the Senate in 1988, he will be the committee’s chairman.
In mid-March of this year, R.E. Carter Wrenn, executive director of the National Congressional Club, announced that the club was raising funds to draft Helms for the presidency in 1988. Helms has over the years made a series of nearly Shermanesque statements about the White House. But a similar “draft” propelled him not so reluctantly into the Senate. If he made a serious run for the nomination, history suggests he could not be counted out.
Of course, Helms’s far-right constituency currently appears to be in some difficulty. Loyal Reagan supporters are disillusioned with the spreading Irancontra scandal. The Christian Right has been shaken by allegations of scandal and feuding among prominent evangelists such as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Marion G. “Pat” Robertson. Even Helms has his problems. In a reaction against the National Congressional Club, Helms’s candidate for the chair of the North Carolina Republican party seems headed for defeat later this spring. But these troubles may be transitory, and they may even propel Helms into the presidential race in an attempt to unite the national right and ensure it a strong voice at the 1988 National Convention. He might choose to run as a regional favorite son on March 8, 1988, “Super Tuesday,” when several southern primaries take place. He has been a powerful figure at the last two conventions, dictating much of the platform. A block of delegates in a deadlocked convention might put him into a position to bargain for something higher.
As Furgurson shows, Helms has always been fascinated by the vice-presidency. In 1979, he described the office as one from which he could perfect the politics of opposition: “You could have the presidency,” he said, “Just let me run the Senate…. Within the rules of the Senate I would stop whatever I wanted to, all those appropriations bills, and everyone would soon come running to me to work things out. We would get this country straightened out.”
How did this unlikely figure become a hero to millions who do not share his small-town southern roots?
To understand his success, one must start with his blameless personal life. He is a faithful member of the Baptist Church, a teetotaler, a loyal husband, and a devoted father. (Helms and his wife Dorothy had two daughters, then in 1963 adopted a nine-year-old boy suffering from cerebral palsy.) He is held in great affection by a wide circle of friends, including many who disagree with his political crusade. In television ads and speeches, Helms is a thundering prophet; in person, he is gentle, avuncular, and charming. At the end of our interview he told me disarmingly, “You go on and write what you think you ought to write. I’m sure you’ll be fair with me, and if you’re not, I’ll still like you.”
It may be tempting to dismiss this side of Helms as a politician’s false bonhomie, but I think his personal kindness is genuine—and an important asset. Helms reduces issues to personal terms, and in this may lie much of his appeal. Asked about those who call him racist, he earnestly replied,
They ought to ask the blacks who really know me. I invite you to do that. Go around this complex, talk to the black policemen, talk to the black people who work in various capacities. Most of them know me. I will rest my case on their judgment.
As for his broadcast commentaries, he insisted that blacks did not resent them. “You’d be surprised how many black people told me then and tell me now, ‘You’re exactly right.”‘ The visitor has to remind himself he is talking to a man who conducted a thirty-year vendetta against Martin Luther King and is opposed by about 90 percent of the black voters in his own state.
His personal warmth and confidence remind the visitor of Reagan’s similar qualities. Like Reagan, Helms has a genius for dealing with the emotional side of politics, which has helped him to create the sentimental appeal of the New Right. For example, Helms discusses East-West relations by talking of Noelle and Stacy Grenfell, two children who were aboard KAL 007. Helms was on another flight to Seoul that day, and he says he met the Grenfell girls in an Anchorage departure lounge and saw them march off to the doomed flight. “Don’t ask me to say communism is just another philosophy,” he says emotionally.
By using this thoroughly personal approach in addressing a variety of familiar American anxieties, Helms has managed to build a huge coalition throughout the country: fundamentalist Christians worried about “secular humanism” and school prayer; conservative Catholics opposed to abortion; white parents troubled by busing, drugs, and pornography; small-business owners who resent government intrusion; manufacturers who favor laissez-faire and high defense spending; many who worry about military weakness and the threat of communism.
Helms’s aide James Lucier likes to say that Helms’s appeal is “prepolitical,” by which he means that he first establishes rapport based on his notions of personal morality. Each of us is responsible for ourselves, Helms argues, and the things that really matter in our daily lives—Christian faith, sexual morality, family feeling, patriotism, obedience to law—can be more powerful than economic forces, population trends, environmental changes, or any impersonal force. “Our political problems,” he wrote in 1976,
are nothing but our psychological and moral problems writ large. There is a great crisis of the spirit, a weariness of soul that has gradually paralyzed much of the Christian West. As a result, communism has taken over almost half of the world’s population in our own lifetimes with little serious opposition.4
The answer to America’s problems is not a political program, but a religious one: “As Christians we need to work with missionary zeal to reinstate the rule of Christ in our sadly demoralized country.”5
A lifelong Southern Baptist, Helms is a fundamentalist who believes that the Bible is wholly free of error. Helms’s allies have been prominent in the recent takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by hard-line conservative fundamentalists. In matters of doctrine Helms is close to the Reverend Jerry Falwell, an independent Baptist fundamentalist. Falwell and his organization, the Moral Majority, provided Helms with highly effective support during his 1984 senatorial campaign. But Helms also maintains good relations with Pentacostal and charismatic evangelists like Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson. He has spoken favorably of Robertson’s presidential ambitions and once gave “Christian witness” on Bakker’s TV program.
But if Helms’s message is “prepolitical,” his delivery might be called postpolitical. Helms’s mastery of modern publicity and marketing techniques enables him to convey the message vividly. In 1975, Helms wrote that he was “by profession first of all a journalist and a U.S. Senator second.” He remains at heart a television personality. To him, WRAL-TV is still “my station.” One of his foundations produces conservative TV documentaries for syndication. (Helms even helped produce a televised appeal on Lebanese television for the return of the American hostages in Beirut.)
North Carolina is an unusually homogeneous, rural state. Even today, more than half of its people live in communities of 2,500 or smaller. Jews account for about fifteen thousand of the state’s five million people—one-tenth the national average; Catholics account for less than two percent. In the small towns of North Carolina, foreign countries and even major American cities can seem like distant and terrifying places, and for many it makes sense to vote for the candidate who is “one of us.” But through television that message has now acquired a kind of national electronic effectiveness. TV can move political discourse away from the discussion of public issues and into a play on deep insecurities; Helms has been successful in recreating nationally the appeal he earlier had for fearful southern villagers peering at the world from behind closed doors.
Journalism is important to Helms in another way: What the “plutocracy” was for William Jennings Bryan, “communism” was for Joseph McCarthy, and “bureaucrats” were for George Wallace, the “liberal media” is for Helms—a conspiratorial, monolithic, sinister power bloc strangling the hopes of ordinary people. Helms’s crusade against the “liberal media” sometimes seems like an internal quarrel with successful colleagues—perhaps tinged with jealousy of TV stars like Dan Rather. When he left WRAL to run for office, Helms told me, he was in the midst of negotiating a syndication deal for his editorial spots. When he moved against CBS, it even seemed possible that he might all along have been viewing the Senate as a steppingstone to an on-air network job.
Helms’s third strength is the vigor and certainty of his ideas, and the ready-made enemies they provide. In Hard Right, Furgurson discusses the transformation of Helms from the relatively nonpolitical young reporter of the early 1940s into the ideologue of WRAL. Some of the credit belongs to Alvin Wingfield, Jr., who persuaded Helms to read the Austrian-born free-market economist Ludwig von Mises. Helms often cites Mises as a formative influence on his philosophy. Of Mises’s dense, brilliant summation, Human Action,6 he recently said: “I had to read every page three times. It’s sort of like reading Solzhenitsyn.”
Socialism, as Mises defined it, was any government intervention in the economy; this led inevitably toward economic collapse and war. Helms agrees enthusiastically. “What do you call it when you take from one fellow and give to another?” he asked in our interview. “What is the name of it if you’re going to look at it guts, feathers, and all and be honest about it? The preponderance of federal programs really are socialistic by definition.”
But Mises was also a devoted exponent of Enlightenment liberalism, and of “the fundamental political institutions of the liberal system: majority rule, tolerance of dissenting views, freedom of thought, speech, and the press, equality of all men under the law.” He saw liberalism as radically opposed to “theocracy”—any political order that “lays claim to a superhuman title for its legitimation.” Mises’s liberal thought tolerates religious beliefs only so long as they “do not pretend to interfere with the conduct of social, political, and economic affairs.”7
Helms has adopted Mises’s free-market ideas without their skeptical, humanistic assumptions. His opposition to “liberalism” is not just a matter of loathing the New Deal; he questions its entire philosophical basis. “Liberalism is the political creed of a pseudo-religion known as humanism, which grew out of the Renaissance in Europe,” Helms wrote in 1976. “Humanism, which is basically an attempt to create a heaven on earth—a heaven with God and His law excluded from it—drew freely from the ancient pagan religions and philosophies that Christianity had supplanted many centuries before.”8
Helms also writes that “atheism and socialism—or liberalism, which tends in the same direction—are inseparable entities.”9 In other words, Helms’s opponents, be they SCLC, Americans for Democratic Action, or the Albanian Politburo, were, and are, to him philosophically the same.
Helms’s political education has continued with his travels in Latin America. His first major foreign-policy battle was a rear-guard action against the “give-away” of the Panama Canal. He used that fight to raise funds, organize New Right campaigns, and make alliances with rightist Latin politicians. With money from foundations he helped form, Helms travels often in Latin American countries.
Furgurson quotes from an essay Helms published in 1976 in a conservative magazine called The Journal of Social and Political Affairs.10 In the essay, Helms argued that the US should align itself with an “ABC” axis: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. These three countries, he said, were “closer to basic US values” than nominally democratic Mexico or Venezuela.
“It is no coincidence that all of these countries have struggled with various forms of socialism, fascism, and communism and have managed to throw them off,” he wrote. In late 1975, Argentina was still nominally headed by a constitutional president. In 1976 Isabel Per/da/on was overthrown by a military junta that ruled until 1984 through state terror and torture.11 Brazil, under General Ernesto Geisel, was slowly beginning to liberalize after a decade of military rule. And Chile, then as now, was a dictatorship maintained by secret police, censorship, and torture. “There are some who, nevertheless, have claimed that one country or the other does not share our democratic values,” Helms wrote. “Yet there are values that are more basic to human dignity than democratic values.”
Helms explains that
the right to property, for example, is one of the most fundamental of human values. It provides a man with independence, security, and the support of his family. It frees him from dependence upon the state, guarantees his privacy, and his liberty of thought and conscience.
“Buttressing our fundamental rights,” he argues, are “such secondary rights as a free press and…a free ballot.” Helms continues:
When I look at a country to see how much freedom it has, I look first to the ordinary, work-a-day freedom that the average citizen has—his right to property, his freedom to make economic decisions, his ability to worship God. In communist and socialist countries these rights are automatically abridged or eliminated when the state takes charge of its citizens.
Thus a state that throws off communism or socialism or anarchy, already has taken the giant step towards restoring the most important freedoms to its citizens, even if all the secondary freedoms cannot be restored at once.
When I mentioned Furgurson’s contention that this view leaves him “dangling close to totalitarianism,” Helms dismissed it as ridiculous. “Without property rights, you can’t have freedom—freedom of the press or any other freedom. That was the point I was trying to make and I think I made it fairly clear.”
Helms’s backing for the “ABC” regimes thus seems less a matter of cold war expediency than of “free enterprise” principle; certainly he has taken political risks for them. For the now-deposed Argentine junta, Helms went against domestic political opinion, and his own friendship for Margaret Thatcher, to support the 1982 Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands. He remains vocally loyal to Pinochet’s Chile. The many reports by human rights organizations and even the Reagan administration condemning the torture, killings, and “disappearances” of thousands of people there he dismisses as “a myth.” “I’m not saying the security down there are perfect,” he told me, “they are not perfect in this country.” He defends Chile, he says, because of its economic policies: “They don’t have a sign of a subsidy.” After his visit to Chile in 1986, he told The Charlotte Observer that
a lot of people don’t understand or are not aware of what our constitution provides. It provides martial law, with all of the implications of that, suspension of habeas corpus.
I fear that the same sort of terrorism [as in Chile] will come to this country on a large scale and maybe in the not too distant future, in which case you will see martial law and whatever is necessary to quell that sort of thing…. Whatever is necessary to keep the United States free of communism, I’d be willing to do, and if that’s an extreme statement, so be it.12
What kind of confrontation, I asked, would justify such a reaction here? Something worse than the violence of the 1960s, he said. “I’m talking about attempts at the violent overthrow of the United States.”
This distinction is hardly reassuring, since to Helms Jesse Jackson, or even Edward Kennedy, is a “socialist,” potentially as dangerous as Salvador Allende or Fidel Castro. And if liberty—the right to property—is truly threatened, he argues, the most drastic measures are permissible. A Helms administration, or one in which he played an important part, would likely promote a more restricted sense of American freedom than the one currently in favor even among Reaganites. His vision combines a rigid defense of property rights with strict social discipline to enforce Christian values. In Jesse Helms, it has found a champion who has yet to meet his match.
May 7, 1987
A detailed biographical sketch of Helms, drawn largely from North Carolina newspaper clippings, is included in Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984 by William D. Snider (The University of North Carolina Press, 1985). ↩
V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (University of Tennessee Press, 1984), p. 210. ↩
Stephen Engelberg, “Vote in Senate Supports Helms on CIA Curb,” The New York Times (September 26, 1986), p. 1. Among other things, the measure reportedly required the CIA to investigate whether Soviet agents caused the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. ↩
Jesse Helms, When Free Men Shall Stand (Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 11. ↩
Helms, When Free Men Shall Stand, pp. 17–18. ↩
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Yale University Press, 1949). ↩
Mises, Human Action, pp. 152–155. ↩
Helms, When Free Men Shall Stand, p. 26. ↩
Helms, When Free Men Shall Stand, p. 16. Emphasis added. ↩
Jesse Helms, “A New Policy for Latin America,” The Journal of Social and Political Affairs (January 1976). ↩
Furgurson cites a New York Times report quoting anonymous diplomatic sources who suggest that Helms met with the Argentine generals before the coup and encouraged them to act. “I have never met with Argentine generals at any time,” Helms told me. ↩
Bill Arthur, Tim Funk, and Jim Morrill, “Inside Straight,” The Charlotte Observer (September 11, 1986). ↩