It's Washington in late September, and most senators are up to their hair plugs in Iraq. Under different circumstances, a debate about America's sovereignty would have sent Jesse Helms cartwheeling to the center of the Senate floor, but with a weak heart, numb feet, and an unreliable sense of balance, the North Carolina senator no longer has the strength. Instead, he sits in a room off the main chamber, nestled in his motorized scooter, and entertains 55 middle-schoolers from Raleigh.
"I understand you got a mean lady for a principal," he says. The kids smile, because the lady in question is Helms's daughter. "You tell me about her. I'll spank her." He looks around the room. "Where is Jane?"
An apple-cheeked woman with gray hair raises her hand. Helms points.
"I changed her diapers."
The kids think that's pretty funny.
"Anyone have any questions for my daddy?" she asks.
They do, but Helms, 81, has a hard time hearing them; a blonde aide in a bright-pink sweater has to repeat each one loudly into the senator's left ear. A Capitol Hill photographer comes along, and Helms insists, as he generally does, on getting out of his scooter for the shot. One of his aides gingerly reaches under his arms and hoists him up. Another picks away bits of lint from his collar.
Slowly, on pelican's feet, Helms makes his way over to the huddle of seventh- and eighth-graders, leaning uncertainly on his four-legged cane. It is only when he reaches the group, unsteady but triumphant, that he finally shows a hint of the man who led the crusade against Robert Mapplethorpe, thumbed his nose at Gerald Ford, proposed at least ten constitutional amendments to ban abortion, denounced Martin Luther King Jr.'s "action-oriented Marxism," called a Clinton appointee a "militant-activist-mean lesbian," and held up eighteen ambassadorial nominations and two treaties in order to force a reorganization of the State Department.
"I want everyone," he instructs the kids, "to grin like a jackass chewin' briars."
Helms's daughter moves to his side. He tries to put his arm around her. And for one terrifying moment, he teeters violently backward. "Whoa," the senator cries.
His daughter reaches out to steady him.
Perhaps no one in american public life has made the liberal liver work harder than Jesse Helms. The mere mention of his name provokes hostility, fund-raising, bravura acts of guerrilla protest. In 1991, AIDS activists scaled the roof of his home in Arlington, Virginia, and inflated a fifteen-foot replica of a condom. (HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS, IT READ.) The Internet has a site where you can make him explode. During his first term, the Raleigh News & Observer gave him a nickname, and it stuck for the rest of his career: Senator No.
Apart from Ted Kennedy, Jesse Helms may be the one out-of-state senator that New Yorkers can readily identify, because he is the champion of values so many of us loathe: pro-life, anti-gay, U.S. first, U.N. last. Alan Simpson, the retired Wyoming Republican with a coyote's tongue and sailor's flair for metaphor, thinks we're destined not to understand him. "It's the natural elitism of geography," he muses. "New Yorkers are a great and wonderful people, but if you stop and ask 'em if they've ever been to North Carolina, they'll stop and blink at you like a frog in a hailstorm."
With Helms retiring in January, the great temptation is to deem his departure the end of an era. And in some respects, it is: When Helms first entered politics as a staffer to a North Carolina senator 50 years ago, the South was still fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve segregation, the Red Menace was alive and well, and Roe v. Wade sounded, as the old quip goes, like two options for crossing a stream.
The truth, however, is that Helms is more responsible for defining our current political era than prolonging a bygone one, and he leaves a Senate fashioned largely, if not entirely, in his own image. To understand his legacy is to understand how Congress has evolved in recent years -- in ways that increasingly tilt away from New York's interests.
When Helms was first elected to Congress in 1972, there were 42 Republicans in the Senate, many of them quite liberal, and only 6 were from the South. Today, Helms exits as one of at least 51 Republicans, almost all of whom are deeply conservative, and 13 of whom, including the party leader, come from the South -- 17 if you include Texas and Oklahoma.
When Helms entered the Senate, he railed against mothers on welfare, railed against big government, railed against the disappearance of God from public discourse. Today, religion and morality are regular staples of Washington discussion, the welfare state is fading, and when it comes to the size of government, most politicians agree that less is more.
"Jesse Helms was conservative before conservative was cool," declared Phil Gramm, another retiring Republican lion, at the Senate's two-and-a-half-hour, two-hankie lollapalooza of Helms tributes on October 2. "Before Jesse Helms came to the Senate, there was a guilt about America, this doubt about our purpose and our policy. Jesse Helms, as a young member of the Foreign Relations Committee, started the process of changing that debate."
As the Greatest Generation starts to fade from the Senate and finds itself replaced, as Dave Barry likes to say, by the Largest, boomer Republicans are getting misty about Jesse Helms. ("The Rambo of the Geritol generation" is how Bob Dole once fondly described him, before he himself became the Rambo of the Viagra generation.) Younger Republicans may not always have agreed with him -- he was, after all, one of only six senators to vote against the Clean Water Act, one of five to oppose the reauthorization of the Civil Rights Act, and one of two to reject the arms-control agreement with the Soviets in 1987 -- but it was precisely this fearless, uncompromising radicalism that made their lives possible.
"He really set out markers in terms of how far conservatives could go and how aggressive they could be," explains Republican Judd Gregg, the senior senator from New Hampshire, who was 25 when Helms first got elected. "We're perceived as less hard-edged because of him," adds Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, who was 14.