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The next day the Times reported, with what sounded like a small note of triumph, that the promised “dramatic confrontation” had “fizzled.” It seemed that an “unusually upbeat” Talbott had put Helms in his place. He had “sidestepped the sharpest queries” by Helms, and apparently Helms did not like that. He had “hurried” Talbott away from the witness table after “glaring down” at him while he testified.
But Helms had been rocking gently back and forth in his chair while Talbott testified, which he was unlikely to have done if he had been glaring, and when he “hurried” Talbott away from the witness table he had said, “Thank you, sir, for coming, and thank you for bringing Mrs. Talbott with you.” And as one State Department official said to another as they were leaving the hearing, “I thought it would be a little more hostile than this.”
ACTUALLY THE COURTLY, courteous, old-fashioned Helms — you cannot imagine him ever writing “Bulls—t” on a memo — is seldom very hostile. He relies instead on persistence. A former official with the Agency for International Development says that for a while in the 1980’s his sole job was to answer Helms’s letters. AID at the time was offering women in Bangladesh “incentives” for sterilization as part of its population program. (And say now that if anything would capture Helms’s attention, that would.)
“The incentives were a tiny amount of money and a clean sari,” the former official recalled, “but Helms wanted them stopped. One of his letters — he called the saris ‘party dresses.’ So we told him there would be no more incentives. Then there were ‘referrals’ — money for a woman who brought another woman into the program, and we had to stop that, too. Helms was on to it. We’d write to him saying we give payment only for travel expenses, and we’d get a letter back saying, what about the referrals? How did he know about that? We thought he had a spy in the system.”
Consequently, the former official said, AID became “terrified.” It worried in particular that Helms would find out it had a program to distribute condoms to adolescents in Central America. “We had to make ourselves look good without really lying,” the former official said. “So all our population officers were told verbally: no stand-alone adolescent programs. They asked, ‘Where will this be written down?’ and we said, ‘Nowhere.’ The adolescent programs were all folded into other programs, and we didn’t want Helms to know about it. He never did find out.”
A defeat, then, for Helms, and a victory for AID, adolescents, and condoms — and also a lesson in how things work in Washington. Bureaucrats do not necessarily lie, but often they are duplicitous. Full disclosure about sterilization programs and condom distribution, much less about CIA memos and IMF loans, is seldom forthcoming. Bureaucrats and officials have their own priorities, and they are not the same as Helms’s. Senior officials must be discreet about this, but those in the lower ranks can be more open. Helms can inspire liberal fear and loathing among them — and possibly grudging respect.
An example: A mid-level State Department official has a framed picture of Helms on the wall of his office. It hangs in back of his desk. A new colleague, on seeing it for the first time, asked him why. “It’s to remind me,” he answered, “that that son of a bitch is always looking over my shoulder at everything I do.”
The new colleague, no dummy — he described the mid-level official as “an unreconstructed McGovernite” — told a friend about this. That friend told another friend, who then told Helms himself. “Well, you pass the word,” Helms said happily, “that that’s why I am here — to keep looking over his shoulder.”
“I enjoy what I do,” Helms is saying now. “There’s nothing all that difficult about being chairman. But if I had to specify one thing, it’s the failure of so many people to understand what the committee’s all about — what it’s supposed to be doing.”
AND WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED to be doing is protecting the national interest, especially on defense. With Helms as its chairman, the Foreign Relations Committee has been more forceful on these issues than it had been for years. Claiborne Pell, the last Democratic chairman, opposed SDI and aid to the contras; he supported a nuclear freeze. The committee was one of history’s losers. Helms, who had been elected to the Senate in 1972, joined the comittee in 1979. In 1984, when the Republicans won control of the Senate, seniority entitled him to become its chairman. But he had promised North Carolina voters that if he were re-elected to the Senate he would become chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and protect federal subsidies for the state’s tobacco and peanut crops. Richard Lugar became chairman of Foreign Relations instead.
“Lugar and Helms have a complex, cool relationship,” a Senate aide said guardedly. Delicacy stopped him from saying more, although really there was no need to. Lugar and Helms argued on the Senate floor last year over whose views were more “ridiculous.” The two have, as they say, a history. In 1986 Republicans lost control of the Senate, and Helms, of course, lost his chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee. He decided then that he had fulfilled his pledge to North Carolina, and would try to become the ranking minority member on Foreign Relations. After all, he was the senior Republican. He and Lugar had joined the committee on the same day in 1979, but he had served in the Senate four years longer.
The Republicans on the committee, however, did not see it that way. They voted unanimously to make Lugar the ranking minority member. Helms then appealed the decision to the other Republicans in the Senate, and in a secret ballot reaffirming the seniority principle they overturned the committee members’ vote, and made him the ranking minority member.
It would be nice to think the committee united then in conservative purpose, but it did not. As ranking minority member, Helms could choose nine professionals on the committee staff, but even his most devoted admirers do not think he chose very well. For one thing, the new staffers were drawn to conspiracy theories. One was that passengers had survived the downing of Korean Airlines flight 007, and were being held in Soviet prisons. Other Senate Republicans, as well as members of the Bush administration, began to look strangely at the Foreign Relations Committee.
Something had to be done, and it was. In 1991, Helms persuaded a boyhood friend from Monroe, North Carolina to come out of retirement, and reorganize the staff. He was James Nance, once a rear admiral, and by all accounts a lovely man. He worked for Helms until the week before his death from a debilitating blood disease last May. Many senators eulogized him then, among them, of course, Helms. His voice cracked when he said: “I loved Bud Nance like a brother. In my final conversation with him nine days ago, I told him so. His voice, weak and raspy, but nonetheless unmistakably clear, replied, ‘I love you, too.’”
Helms began to cry. This was also the essential Jesse.
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