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Jesse Helms cut a wide swath in U.S. politics

July 4, 2008 | 10:12 am

Power is perishable, and when politicians exit the stage, it often doesn't take long -- especially in Washington -- for their importance to be only vaguely recollected.

Former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a staunch conservative who weighed in on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, died today So with the death today of former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina at age 86, we offer some reminders of the central role -- for good, ill or a combination of both, depending on one's viewpoint -- he played in public policy and political discourse (The Times' obituary can be read here).

Back in the late 1990s, the Almanac of American Politics said flatly of Helms that "no American politician is more controversial, beloved in some quarters and hated in others...."

This, at a time when Bill Clinton was deep into his presidency.

First elected to his Senate seat in 1972, aided by Richard Nixon's landslide in that year's presidential election and the increasing GOP appeal to the South's conservative ethos, Helms at first was chiefly known for his staunch -- and often colorfully expressed -- opposition to abortion rights, gay rights and a raft of other liberal causes.

He truly became a figure to be reckoned with, however, through his tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (he eventually became its chairman). As the political almanac put it, he used his seat "to conduct something like his own foreign policy." During Ronald Reagan's presidency and the administration of George H.W. Bush, Helms and a band of loyal aides "developed their own sources and attempted to manipulate State Department appointments to help the contras in Nicaragua and rightists in El Salvador."

Helms was revered on the right. In comments on MSNBC today, Pat Buchanan judged him "the second most important conservative of the second half of the 20th Century" (the first, of course, being Reagan).

And he was reviled on the left, perhaps never more so then during his 1990 reelection campaign when he faced a spirited challenge from an African-American, Harvey Gantt.

That race overshadowed all others in the nation that year, and it lives on due to the controversial -- many say race-baiting ads -- that Helms employed.

The best-known ad sought to tap into resentment against "quota" hiring practice by showing white hands crumpling a job rejection notice while a narrator intoned that the better qualified applicant had been bypassed for a minority hire.

Less well-known is a spot that berated Gantt for waging a "secret" campaign because he was advertising on black-owned radio stations.

Helms won the election, 53% to 47%, and then defeated Gantt by virtually the same margin in a rematch six years later.

As our friend Frank James notes in his posting on The Swamp, Helms "was more complicated on racial issues than the caricature he had with much of the public."

Still, some will see irony in the timing of Helms' passing -- just a few weeks before Barack Obama makes racial history when he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: Newsmakers