What rough beast?

There are few pleasures in this business to equal total vindication, even when you wait years for your harvest. How sweet it is, to hear the presidents of tobacco companies confess to all the worst charges I ever lodged against them, and offer hundreds of billions to save themselves from the lynching they so richly deserve; to hear the Pentagon admit that the Gulf War was a more savage, calamitous farce than even I imagined, now that the deaths of hundreds of Americans by "friendly fire" will be overshadowed by tens of thousands of slow deaths from nerve gas exposure (which our government denied passionately for years -- and look for the final revelation that we sold the whole technology to Saddam Hussein, to use against Iran); to see the NRA shrink in membership, wealth and influence, after reigning for years as the midget muscleman of American politics; to watch the vainglorious Newt Gingrich beg his own mutinous sycophants for one last chance.

THESE ARE A FEW of my favorite things. But if you want to hang up your trophies, you're also obliged to publish your mistakes. One of my biggest mistakes was a column I wrote when Jesse Helms was elected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (leaving Agriculture and his trusting tobacco farmers behind).

How much harm can he do, I wrote, when half the Republicans on the committee treat him like a demented uncle on a weekend pass from Butner? Cooler heads will prevail, I predicted, and clearer ones. Jesse will enjoy a higher media profile, is all, and the world will enjoy a few more belly laughs at North Carolina's expense.

Why isn't anyone laughing anymore? It took interventions by Bob Dole and George Bush to override Jesse's personal crusade against the Chemical Weapons Convention, a landmark treaty signed by virtually every civilized nation, and rejected only by outlaw states like Iraq, Libya and North Korea. A few weeks later, and Jesse was back in the headlines, fracturing his own party by refusing to schedule confirmation hearings for a Republican, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who is President Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Mexico.

"Ludicrous" is a mild word. Washington knows no precedent for anything like this. For those of us who've watched the long dim journey of Jesse Helms, hatched in darkness and tunneling further and further from the light like some mutant mole on a secret mission, it's a cruel twist to hear a CNN anchor intone: "President Clinton may not press this nomination, because he can't afford to offend the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee."

Where did I miscalculate? I failed to appreciate the Senate's myopic, inflexible reverence for seniority and procedure, and I seriously underestimated the partisan cowardice of Senate Republicans. But it seemed so bizarre, putting a delirious Cold War berserker in charge of Foreign Relations, I suppose I couldn't see beyond the comedy. It was like appointing Robert Downey drug czar, or making Michael Jackson Secretary of Day Care.

In all of government, possibly the only place Jesse could cause more mischief is the Justice Department's civil rights division. Whether it's civil rights or foreign relations, Jesse's views are much the same -- he doesn't think we need any.

As Jesse's power waxes, American media tend to airbrush his image a little, casting him as a Bible Belt stereotype instead of the truly singular piece of ugly work he is. To maintain perspective, I subscribe to the World Press Review. In Europe and Great Britain, journalists seem innocently astonished that such a primitive creature still exists. Their reports on Jesse Helms read like adventures in natural history, with scientists digging a woolly mammoth out of a glacier or a petrified T-rex out of a tar pit.

London's Independent reviewed Jesse's foreign policy, for Europeans who didn't know and Americans who've forgotten. After he eliminates foreign aid to the Third World ("a rat hole"), abolishes the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and downsizes the United Nations and the U.S. State Department to his specifications, Helms hopes to revive Star Wars and restage the Cold War as if the Soviet sun had never set. A few straggling, half-starved communists in Havana would have to bear the full fury of Jesse's military fantasies.

Defending his Helms-Burton law, which denies entry to the United States for anyone who does business with Cuba, Helms lectured outraged Europeans: "When you do business with a tyrant, you're dealing in blood money."

This compelled the London writer, one John Carlin, to ask Jesse with whom he thought he was doing business as America's foremost friend of apartheid South Africa, of the Argentine junta, of Chile's General Pinochet, of Haiti's Raoul Cedras, of the military dictatorship in Guatemala and the Salvadoran death squads run by his fascist crony Roberto D'Aubuisson ("a free enterprise man and deeply religious," said the senator).

A RESUME SO FRIGHTENING is hard to square with any flesh-and-blood human being. I've watched generations of liberal journalists go and interview the senator and come back confused, almost disarmed by his courtesy and avuncular manner. Debates raged about "the real Jesse, monster or moron?" Like Reagan sleepwalking through Iran-contra or Nixon denying Watergate, Helms had to be criminally cynical or criminally stupid, or a bit of both. There were no further options. (Bill Clinton's credibility is doubly vulnerable because no one thinks he's stupid.)

To stand up for Jesse's morals, you have to disparage his intelligence; I'm always proud to stand up. After 30 years in the news business I can honestly say that Jesse's is the most relentless case of cerebral calcification I ever encountered in a public figure. His learning curve ends up flat as a blind armadillo.

I don't concede him some satanic logic that I'm too innocent to comprehend. On all the evidence, Jesse Helms is simply so ignorant, so blinded by antiquated prejudices, misplaced malice, misguided belief systems and petty animosities that any sane position he assumes should be dismissed as accidental. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assessed him shrewdly as a lonely old soul, maybe not too bright and a couple bricks shy of a load. She worked her wiles as a diplomat (and a female) by flattering Helms and flirting with him, and seems to have the old wolverine eating out of her hand.

Watching Helms abuse his new power, I remember what George McGovern said to me 10 years ago, when Jesse was more of a curiosity than a force to be reckoned with:

"No man, living or dead, has done more to thwart the best intentions and diminish the prestige of the United States Senate."

William Weld, droll and unflappable, is not a big enough billygoat to rout the trolls of intolerance and reaction and restore the captive GOP to its rightful heirs. But his battle with Helms may win sympathy for Republican moderates. Weld, of course, is an actual Republican, like my father and my grandfathers -- he's stingy with public money and wary of regulation, but his social policies are pragmatic and humane. Helms, still wearing his "D" for Dixiecrat, was perhaps the worst of the race-baiting extremists who wore out their welcome in the Democratic Party after America accepted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress," said Jesse Helms).

I'm afraid some young people may be voting Republican without understanding that it wasn't always the party of fundamentalists, John Birchers, gunslingers and segregationists. The modern GOP coalition, dominated by reactionaries, combines the worst of both parties -- Republican stinginess purged of compassion, Dixiecrat prejudice without its smalltown, populist roots.

The GOP today is a strange hybrid of big business and bigotry, property and prejudice. General Bullmoose bred to Bull Connor. I wince to hear some of these people call themselves Republicans. You get a sense of the party's total metamorphosis from a new biography of Jackie Robinson, due out in October. Robinson was a tireless, outspoken activist for civil rights -- and a loyal Republican. He distrusted John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson because he saw them appeasing Jim Crow Democrats in Congress. The politicians Robinson admired most were Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon.

Robinson lived just long enough to see his heroes march to the Right with the rest of their party. Mercifully he never lived to see the inconceivable, his Republican Party (and sometimes both parties) on bended knee to a direct descendant of the same racist demagogues who drove Robinson's family out of Alabama in 1920.

AREN'T WE PROUD of ourselves, here in North Carolina? Call me a pollyanna, but I've never believed that two-thirds of our white voters were actually endorsing Jesse's poisonous worldview when they marked their ballots. The world is changing too fast for many of us, and by reelecting their grandfathers' senator (still available, incredibly) these voters were tipping their hats to the past -- like flying a Confederate battle flag -- and raising a defiant finger to all those Yankees, liberals, yuppies, Duke professors and Independent smart alecks who seem to be turning North Carolina into Rhode Island South.

Jesse Helms was our little joke on the Yankees. Who could predict the political realignments that elevated Jesse from novelty to nabob, that moved his act from the side show to the big top? Now the joke's on us, on the country -- on the world. And no one's laughing except Jesse Helms.

What does the world think of North Carolina? Thanks to us, a local joke has become an international scandal. All America's sins and flaws, all our political and cultural baggage are packed into one crusty old dinosaur, so heavy now that no force on earth can move him from the middle of the highway.

Where will the Tarheel Godzilla strike next? The United Nations, the State Department, arms control, foreign aid, Latin America, the Middle East, China, Mars ... nothing foreign is safe, and to Jesse almost everything is foreign. It's like a crazy comic book come true.

May God forgive us for our sense of humor.

Hal Crowther is a columnist for the Independent in Durham, N.C.

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