Jesse Helms, the patron saint of the ultra right from North Carolina, was on the march -- indelibly stamping the 1980 platform with his many amendments and ideas. The Helmsian platform, a testament to the Republican Right -- anti-ERA, anti-abortion, fight communism through military might, et al. -- provided virtually the only controversy in the carefully orchestrated Reagan love-in.
But it was no contest. Bangs became whimpers. Yesterday's fringe contingent is now GOP mainstream. They had the votes and the sentiment to crush any resistance.
"I got 99 percent of what I wanted," Helms exalted as he strolled through the convention, savoring victory. What does it feel like to be no longer considered a right-wing, way-out kook? Magnanimous. The senator drawls, "It feels good."
Jesse Helms, 59, stands well over six feet tall, carries his shoulders slightly hunched, has black, wing-tipped shoes, gray suit, thinning hair, horn-rimmed glasses, crossed flags on his lapel (the American flag and a white Freemasons flag) -- the Main Street banker look. He can't go two feet without being mobbed. Middle-aged groupies with Stop ERA buttons press past reporters for autographs and Polaroid snaps. The spotlight brings both a glow and thin patina of sweat to Helms' brow.
In courtly manner, Helms softly sticks the stiletto to his adversaries as reporters cluster. Helms' faithful plan to nominate him for vice president tonight ("On a scale of one to 10, I'd say it's about nine," he says of his nomination). Their enthusiasm would "send a message to George Bush, if and when he becomes the vice-presidential nominee -- to mind his manners. He's got a lot of scars. He hasn't been sensitive to abortion and other issues."
And many of Helms' loyalists like anti-ERA queen Phyllis Schlafly have threatened to cause a scene if Bush gets the nomination.
All day yesterday, speculation and excitement mounted that Gerald Ford might after all take the second spot. For Helms -- who battled against Ford for Reagan -- that would be another moderate to reeducate, although he said he was willing to accept Ford more than Bush, even though he was one of the presidents who helped negotiate the Panama Canal treaty.
Helms' eyes grow misty. He fingers his silver cross like a worry bead, an adornment not seen by reporters who have covered him in the past. He speaks of his son Charlie, now 28. "Charlie, he's my prized possession. Nineteen years ago I read a story asking children what they wanted Santa Claus to bring them. One paragraph was about a little crippled boy who wanted Santa Claus to bring him a mommy and daddy. It sorta tugged at me." Helms and his wife, who have two other children, adopted the 9-year-old boy who had cerebral palsy. "We had his legs worked on. He became an eagle scout and a forester."
An aide moves over and prompts the senator. "Tell her about Charlie's cap." Helms says, "Oh, you wouldn't be interested. "Oh, it's so typical of him. He never expected anything and he was so grateful. All he had in the world was in a little pasteboard box . . . a toy truck and a little Bible on top of the pile." Well I bought him a baseball and other games and this baseball cap and he thought he'd died and gone to Little Boy Heaven. That night, as he went to bed, it was the first time he called me daddy. He said, "Daddy, if you decide not to keep me, can I keep the cap?'" The voice chokes with emotion. "And I said, "Son, it's not a matter of us keeping you -- but you keeping us.'"
The talk moves on to other children -- the unwanted and battered, the illegitimate who do not get adopted; the view held by many that women should have a choice on whether or not to have an abortion. "I know. I've got friends whose daughters got in trouble. It's terrible, but if my daughter got in trouble it would have to be the same answer."
That answer is a fervid no. The platform calls for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion -- a position the majority of the delegates do not favor but Reagan does. Helms fought fiercely for it. And the moral-majority factions pushed through a position calling for presidents to appoint federal judges who take pro-life stances. "That," says Helms, "is the way I like it."
He then sounds the moral theme heard often this week, of stopping promiscuity in the land."Jerry Falwell [one of the leading electronics preachers] has the answer to illegitimacy. That is Moral Strength. Why, when I first started taking girls out, my daddy sat me down and said, 'Now that little girl is somebody's sister.'"
Would his amendment mean that a woman could not get an abortion even if pregnancy resulted from rape or incest? The drawl gets steely for just a moment. "You'd be a party to a killing."
The "Six Million Dollar Man" -- so dubbed because Helms' religious right following contributed that much to his 1978 Senate campaign -- Helms moves on to blast Henry Kissinger at The American Conservative Union lunch.
Bill Buckley grins and clasps Helms' hand at the podium. To a person, the room places hand over heart as they pledge allegiance to the flag. They roar with approval when Helms says of Kissinger "I don't want to misrepresent him -- he's bad enough on his own." But Kissinger was saying that the military "superiority" in the plank was "just words." ("Superiority" was Helms' addition.) Helms is drowned in applause as he says, "Well I've got news for him!"
Clara Giordano, a Michigan delegate, leaps up and yells over and over "Viva, viva!" She wears a black beehive piled high on her head and a huge, five-inch button "I'm a Red Hot Republican," on her bosom. If Helms approves it, she would reluctantly take Bush for veep.But her voice shakes in anger as she says, "When Bush says freedom of choice, that means freedom to kill babies."
"Jesse Helms would give you the shirt off his back -- but he won't vote for food stamps," said one longtime observer.
There are the peculiar dichotomies -- the personally engaging, studied southern courtliness, the infinite tears to shed for the sorrows of individuals he knows. This is coupled with the hard-line ideology being sold in the '80s. To Helms' foes it is often punitive, callous, insensitive and racist.
Helms says, "I won't vote for a corrupted food stamp bill. If enough senators had voted against the bill increasing it by $2-1/2 billion it would have gone back to committee and they would have cut it down to size." Then, Helms said, measures should be taken to make sure food stamps get to the "truly needy" and "not the able-bodied." He slaps his hand on his knee. "I tell you, this is the one thing working men and women really oppose." What of auto workers, laid off but "able-bodied" now applying for food stamps, Helms is asked. He softens the tune. "Circumstances do change things."
Helms' first job in Washington was as administrative assistant to Rep. Willis Smith (D-N.C.), accused of running a racist campaign -- exploiting pictures showing his opponent with blacks. Helms, who helped in that campaign, said "both sides were lining up bloc votes . . . I'm sure things were done on both sides but Willis Smith was anything but a racist."
Helms takes a drag on a cigarette (in North Carolina, home of tobacco, "you don't have to smoke to get elected -- but it helps") then laughs as he brings up Andy Young. "He was running around in 1978, saying I had to go." bAt that time Helms cracked, "Andy Young said some of his friends wanted to have me for dinner." He says, "Oh I remember that. He was over in Africa, stompin' around, flappin' his mouth. Some people said what I said was in poor taste."
Helms says Northerners don't always understand southern humor. "You have to be so careful. Everything you say is going to offend somebody. I was on a talk show and was asked about something passing and I said, 'Not a Chinaman's chance.' I got calls on that.
Helms was shaped by his small town (5,000) population when he was growing up) in North Carolina. One big influence was his English teacher. "Mizz Annie Lee. She took a special interest in me. She was the first person to explain the gold standard to me. A very conservative lady." His parents were "moral forces with me. My father had very little education. He was the town police chief. He never raised his voice at me. He didn't need to, I respected him that much."
At 9 Helms got a job delivering papers and sweeping out the newspaper office. "My big ambition was to be a newspaperman." Helms moved from newspapers to radio as a commentator, on up to politics as an administrative aide and then out on his own.
Would he like to be one of those electronics preachers with their multitude of millions? The smile is a modest one, "I'm too bad a fella to be a preacher."
But preach he does. One pro-Helms brochure touted his position in no uncertain terms. Against: busing, Great Society programs, the D.C. amendment, departments of education and energy, windfall profits taxes, socialized medicine, Chrysler and New York City loan bail-outs, aid to communist Nicaragua, detente, Salt II, the Panama Canal treaty. He is for: prayer in schools, parental consent for sex education, tax cuts, a balanced budget amendment, and is viewed as "the principal advocate for anti-communist Rhodesia and a loyal friend of free China."
There are two schools of thought circulating at the convention about the Helms factor. One is that his stompin', trompin' ultra-right action is tacitly condoned by the Reagan forces because it makes Ronnie look reasonable by contrast. The other is that Helms hurts Reagan with the moderates he is wooing because he reminds them of just who the Reagan die-hards are.
Reagan aides speak of Helms with a complacency that suggests Helms is no great burden. He has been in Reagan's corner since 1973 and, although he gives hints that he wouldn't like Bush for vice president, he is not going to stir up trouble. "The last thing I want is to cause trouble for Ronald Reagan."
Then Helms says, somewhat pointedly, that he is not out of kilter. "That platform contains nothing Reagan hasn't said over and over again."
So why would he rock the boat and allow them to place his name in nomination? To keep up the visibility, to remind everyone that old Jesse Helms and his flocks are out there ready to pour their money and minions into the crusade for Ronald Reagan -- if everyone minds their p's and q's.
After all, says Helms, it's part of his modus operandi to "take a stand and not waffle. It's part of my M.O."