In Memoriam

Jesse’s World

From our November 1999 issue: Sen. Jesse Helms has never cared what you think of him, which is why he remains a gentleman and as dogged as ever in meeting his obligations.

By 7.7.08

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This article appeared in the November 1999 issue of The American Spectator.

THE RULES ARE KNOWN, the stakes are high, and one of Washington's great contests is played out accordingly. Jesse Helms will thrust, and the White House will parry. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms will demand straight answers, but the administration will not want to provide them. "I did not expect Bill Clinton to be a conservative," Helms says, "but I did expect him to be a litle more constant -- every breath he takes is political." Helms, even his critics must agree, is not like that. His views are consistent, and his principles firm, and in a city where lesser men live and die by the press and elite opinion, he cares not at all what others may say about him. It is just as well. The Economist has described him as "the most brutal curmudgeon in Congress," while the New York Times has insisted he has a "despotic streak," and Newsweek once quoted an unidentified Senate staffer who called him "a mad mongrel dog of the right." What offended them was Helms's audacity in imposing his views, and not theirs, on foreign policy.

"We do what we think is right," Helms says. He is indifferent to his critics, and sometimes even amused by them. An aide, Mark Thiessen, remembers how he found out about the essential Jesse. When he was new to Helms's staff, he proposed writing a letter to the Times rebutting an anti-Helms editorial. "The senator put his arm around me," Thiessen recalls, "and said, 'Son, I don't care what the New York Times says about me, and no one I know does, either.'" At 77, Helms is the lion in winter, secure in himself, and determined to protect what he unashamedly calls "our country's" interests.

So here is a committee hearing on corruption in Russia and U.S. policy. As the Times would report the next day, it held the promise of a "dramatic confrontation." Helms, "the toughest critic in the Senate about accusations of Russian corruption and American complicity," would question "President Clinton's top Russia expert," Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. The hearing room was packed, the press table filled, and two rows of chairs were occupied by unsmiling State Department officials. They knew what Helms would ask: What did the administration know about the corruption, and when did it know it? In 1995, the CIA sent a memo to Al Gore warning him that foreign-aid money was being diverted to crooked Russian officials. Gore reportedly sent it back after scrawling "Bulls--t" on it.

Moreover, only days before the hearing the Washington Post had reported that Hugh and Tony Rodham, Hillary Clinton's strange brothers, had been in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. They had discussed a $118-million investment in hazelnut production with a local political boss. The local boss, a sworn enemy of the Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, a U.S. ally, then put out a statement suggesting he had the "political support" of Bill Clinton. On the face of it that was absurd, but this is the Clinton administration so how could you know? The local boss was also a business partner of Grigori Loutchansky, a Latvian widely known as an international gangster, and Loutchansky once had his picture taken while he shook hands with Clinton at a fundraiser.

"Our purpose today is not to debate the wisdom of supporting or engaging Russia," Helms said solemnly as the hearing began. "We are here to discuss how the Clinton-Gore administration managed, or mismanaged, the U.S. relationship with the Russian government, and what happened to the $5.2 billion in grants and $12.8 billion in loans that was entrusted to the U.S. government by the American taxpayers to support our Russia policies."

Then Helms welcomed Strobe Talbott, and said he was pleased to see him. "And I just recognized your lovely wife," he added gallantly. "I'll just wave at her."

Brooke Shearer Talbott, seated with the State Department officials, waved back, but with only a thin smile as she did. It is widely believed that Helms did not want her husband to succeed Warren Christopher as secretary of state. Madeleine Albright later wore a T-shirt with "I love Jesse Helms" on it.

AFTER HELMS MADE his opening statement, Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat, made his. He said that no matter how deep and pervasive Russian corruption, it still would be wrong to ask, "Who lost Russia?" To do so, he said, would be to neglect the big picture. Later John Kerry, another Democratic member of the committee, would call a "debate about losing Russia entirely inappropriate." Talbott would then agree. Indeed he would say he had vowed never to say "who lost Russia."

But in fact it was only the Democrats who were saying it; the Republicans were leaving it alone. "Who lost Russia?" sounded like "Who lost China?" The Democrats were summoning the ghost of Joe McCarthy, and piously warning against a witch hunt. But there was no witch hunt, of course. There was only Helms, asking direct questions as usual, and as usual finding it hard to get answers.

Helms asked Talbott if the CIA had written a memo about corruption in Russia, and, if it had, did Gore read it, and then dismiss it. Talbott said he must "respectfully decline" to answer; it would be inappropriate for him to comment on intelligence matters.

Helms asked if Russian officials had diverted loans the International Monetary Fund made to Russia's Central Bank to private banks. Talbott said he was unaware of any evidence loans had been diverted.

Helms asked if it were possible, as another State Department official once suggested, that some of the IMF money might have ended up in Swiss banks. Talbott said "capital flight" was a problem in the international economy.

Helms asked Talbott if he thought any of the IMF money might have been stolen. Talbott once again talked about capital flight. "It's all right to say, 'I don't know,'" Helms said, "but don't give me a convoluted answer."

And indeed when Helms then asked why Boris Yeltsin had dismissed the prosecutor who had been looking into what had happened to the IMF loans, Talbott did not give a convoluted answer. He said he did not know.

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.

AND HERE HE IS one final time. It is September 23, the same day as the hearing on corruption in Russia, and while no news story mentioned it, September 23 was also the day that Clinton had chosen for the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

But Helms had blocked that. He had told the White House that he would not send the treaty to the floor of the Senate until Clinton kept his promise to send the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the committee first.

"He won't send up the ABM Treaty because he knows I want to give it a decent burial," Helms said. "He wants to leave it in place. But it leaves my country, our country, undefended, and I'm not going to let that happen. I'll fight him on that."

And that, of course, was the essential Jesse.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.