John Adams our second President, and Thomas Jefferson, our third, were lifelong rivals who loved this country they served with every ounce of their being. So much so, that the coincidence of the date of their deaths on the Fourth of July 1826 – exactly 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence which they both helped bring to pass – is too poetic to go unnoticed.
Adams and Jefferson were also political rivals who, while consumed with each other’s views, were often estranged because of them. Yet, in the end, they were still able to connect on the basis of their common humanity and love of country. Both men, in their long and momentous lives, engendered strong feelings from both those who respected them and those who disliked them. You might say they were our first demonized presidents.
Jesse Helms left this world on July Fourth 2008 and shared much in common with these two great Americans. All three of them were men of conscience and principle with little hesitation to defend their positions in any way they felt they had to.
In the Jewish community though, Helms engendered a great deal of negative passion. Southern Senators cut from the same segregationist cloth escaped the enmity reserved for Helms. This because they remained Democrats and adopted liberal views on a number of issues that Jews were very concerned about. Senators with contemporaneous careers, like Sam Ervin, Al Gore Senior and of course the former KKK leader, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is still serving in the Senate, all managed to shed their segregationist aura, but not Helms. His career-long cardinal sin of fighting the growing trend of abortion on demand was the issue that symbolized all the others. Helms was adamant on the issues he believed in and unlike the others, rather than change his views and violate his principals, he became a Republican.
Another issue that many liberal Jews couldn’t forgive was his support for tobacco. Like abortion, this became a uniquely Jewish issue. Helms was passionately despised for defending his state’s largest agricultural product. But he felt strongly that as Senator of North Carolina he need provide the farmers of his state advocacy for their position. In this and many other things, Helms was not meek. He was a vociferous and tenacious advocate for things he supported, as he demonstrated once again when he became a major proponent of the State of Israel.
Not always a friend of Israel, Helm’s was open to reversing his isolationist position after arguments from Senators like Chic Hecht (R-NV). It certainly wasn’t the Jewish vote of North Carolina nor any large donations from Jewish backers that moved him, but he revisited the issue and he was convinced. Jerusalem for Helms was both Jewish and indivisible and Israel was a bulwark for U.S. interests in the Middle East. (Everything Helms did stemmed from a world-view with the United States at its center.) His stewardship over foreign aid appropriation bills included his concern that Israel keep her qualitative military edge over her opponents. In fact, at one point he attempted to make aid to Israel part of the Defense budget to remove the negative influence of our State Department. Helms supported Israel with great devotion and passion.
Jesse Helms was in the forefront of the humanitarian effort to find homes for the ëboat people’, the residue of our failed efforts in Southeast Asia. He was instrumental in bringing many of these refugees to the United States. and helped settle a number of families in Israel as well. Helms was also the U.S. military’s strongest friend and unceasingly worked to end the post-Vietnam malaise which dominated that era, sapping our will to protect our vital interests.
He watched Communist influence extend itself to every continent and fought our tendency to accept Communist victories and accede to our own defeats. It was Ronald Reagan who created the successful strategy to end the cold war, but it was Jesse Helms and the Republican majority he helped create in the Senate who gave the President the wherewithal to carry it out. The military strength he persevered to build and maintain, created a world that was safer not only for America, but for the democracies of the West and Israel, too.
In a life full of accomplishments, probably his single most significant act was the role he played in persuading a disappointed Ronald Reagan in 1976 to continue his primary campaign for the presidential nomination. Fresh from defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, Reagan was ready to abandon his effort. But Helms got him to stay in the race, resulting in stunning victories first in North Carolina and then Texas. Arthur Finkelstein, a Helms adviser at the time, said “without Helms and Team Reagan there would have been no Reagan presidency and the cause of freedom in the world would have suffered greatly”. Reagan’s 1980 nomination and election happened because of those victories in 1976. Reagan’s spectacular accomplishments, the demise of the communist world and all that flowed from it, were all rooted in Helm’s urging Reagan to continue his campaign.
Helms was a private person. Never seen on the Sunday talk programs because Sunday was for church and family, Jesse Helms was demonized early in his career which made for hotly contested elections that were always expensive, vituperative and close. There was little nuance to the man and he held Democrat and Republican administrations accountable for their behavior. There is no one quite like him in the Senate today and it’s truly unfortunate that so many in the Jewish community fail to recognize his contribution to freedom around the world, as well as to Israel’s survival.
Adams and Jefferson were appreciated more after their passing, as will be Helms. Men of firm conviction and aggressive advocacy provoke strong emotions among those who oppose them while they are alive. And like Adams and Jefferson, Helms poetically left this world on the Fourth of July.