While many North Carolinians are currently reflecting on the life and
career of Senator Jesse Helms in his role as a candidate or leader of
the conservative movement, I would like to take a moment and remember
the Senator for an act of kindness he once showed a young student in
Millions of students descend on Washington each year armed with an
itinerary designed to educate and entertain. Frequently, they get a
very superficial meeting with their member of Congress or Senator
followed by the obligatory photo-op. I was one of these wide eyed young
people that hit DC back in the 80’s on a week long trip that my
political science club financed by selling sweatshirts.
I recall how our group from Durham were so looking forward to meeting
with the legendary Senator No. Apparently we weren’t the only ones. We were traveling with a group from
Yeshiva High, a Jewish school from Brooklyn, NY. When our guide made
the announcement that the North Carolinians needed to leave the group
in order to meet with Senator Helms, I was surprised that our numbers
had grown to include a significant number of young men from New York.
We met Senator Helms on the steps of the Capitol for what we thought
was to be a short talk and a photograph. Instead, after the photo,
Senator Helms looked at his watch and asked us if we would like to see
the inside of the Capitol. We next found ourselves being whisked
through a door reserved only for members of Congress and past a
confused Capitol policeman.
What Senator Helms wanted to show this group of Christians and Jews from North Carolina and New York was the President’s Room where
legislation is often signed into law. Senator Helms, a loyal
Southerner, confided to the students that this room was the place that
Lincoln received word from Grant that General Robert E. Lee, Commander
of Confederate forces was seeking to negotiate the end of the War.
Senator Helms went around the room and asked each student where they
were from and was surprised to learn we had a few northern guests with
us. When he asked why they chose to come see him, Adam, an older
student and clearly their leader responded by saying, "We are here to
thank you for your continued support for the State of Israel." Senator
Helms thanked him for the praise and urged all of us to never hesitate
to contact him for anything in the future.
I left that meeting knowing that I could never fully believe second
hand press accounts about Senator Helms from that point on. He was not
the demon and bigot they portrayed him as. He was a gentleman from the beginning to the end and comparisons between him and current politicians
find them lacking in several categories. He was a visionary in the
field of foreign policy and helped destroy Soviet Communism through
the force of his ideas.
Many detractors confuse the strength of his beliefs and his
unwillingness to compromise with some sort of character flaw. Let’s
keep in mind here that he was making decisions about the future of this
nation, not the governance of the homeowners association. He believed
that the constitution protected our liberties and freedoms and was not
a historical document subject to daily reinterpretation.
No matter what his enemies say about the man, Jesse Helms voiced the
concerns of a majority of North Carolinians for five decades and he had
the electoral victories to prove it. Jesse Helms, R.I.P.