For many Americans, the late Jesse Helms is what they think of when they think of North Carolina. And for progressive North Carolinians, there are many, many good reasons to find an association with the utterly intolerant GOP figure objectionable.
That may be one reason you’re not likely to hear many kind words about the late senator on these pages, but Capitol Broadcasting Company has published an editorial this morning that asks: What would Helms, a staunch anti-communist, think of President Donald Trump’s gushing embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin this week?
Based on Helms’ comments in 2001, the longtime North Carolina Republican likely wouldn’t have had much nice to say about Trump, even as members of the national GOP today grapple with how to respond to the president’s disastrous trip to Helsinki this week.
From the Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial:
There has been much hand-wringing among conservatives on just how to respond to President Donald Trump’s embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin even as he distanced himself from his own government’s fundamental institutions.
To those who might be looking for guidance on how to react, they need not look any further than Jesse Helms, the godfather of the nation’s modern conservative political movement.
Much has changed since that pre-9-11 time. Most folks (except for our president) are 18 years to the wiser. They know that Putin’s government ordered and financed the meddling and attempted sabotage of the 2016 elections. All aimed to at least build distrust in our electoral process.
In 2001 then-President George W. Bush traveled to Europe for a series of meeting with allies and other international leaders, including Putin. Bush’s embrace of Putin wasn’t quite the gushing idolization that Trump expressed this week. But for the time, it was effusive. Helms, the longtime Republican senator from North Carolina and diehard anti-Communist, was alarmed by Bush’s initial chummy assessment of the Kremlin’s leader who’d been an ex-KGB operative.
“He’s an honest, straightforward man who loves his country. He loves his family. We share a lot of values,” Bush said at a June 16, 2001 news conference with Putin.
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
Helms wouldn’t have any of it. Just a few days later, when then Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms didn’t mince his words of concern and caution. See and hear what Helms said.
“I would be misleading you if I did not admit to raising my eyebrows at the assertion that Mr. Putin is ‘trustworthy.’ A ‘remarkable leader,’ he was called. And a man with whom we ‘share common values.’ Now, I criticized officials from the previous administration for using nearly those precise words to describe Mr. Putin. And I was dumbfounded to hear them from mine.
“For we must not forget that under Mr. Putin’s leadership the press has once again felt the jackboot of repression. Arms control treaties obligations remain unfilled and violated. Dangerous weapons technologies have been transferred to rogue states and Georgia’s and Ukraine’s security has been threatened in brutal, indiscriminate military trampling in Chechnya remains unabated.
“For these reasons Mr. Putin is far, in my judgment, far from deserving the powerful political prestige and influence that comes from an excessively personal endorsement by the president of the United States.”
Helms’ stern warning about Putin proved right. Apparently those who seek to portray themselves as inheritors of his political legacy, like Trump, want more to benefit from Helms image than heed his warnings.
Bush eventually came around to Helms’ perspective. Earlier this year, in the wake of the revelations of the Russian meddling, he told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that Putin “is a very aggressive person who wants to reinstate Soviet influence even though the Soviet no longer exists.”
Jesse Helm’s prescient words 18 years ago may still echo in the Capitol.
On this, at least, his would-be heirs in Congress should perk up their ears.