Cynthia Helms is a woman for whom Washington holds few surprises. As the wife of Richard Helms, the former chief of the Central Intelligence Agency who became U.S. Ambassador to near-revolutionary Iran, she's seen it from the inside at its unfeigned, at times intoxicating, best.
As the wife of Richard Helms, private citizen convicted of withholding information from a 1973 congressional committee, she's seen it from the outside at its capricious worst.
That dark moment came in 1977 when her husband, after pleading no contest, appeared for sentencing before a federal judge on government charges. He was charged with failing, as then-CIA director, to tell a congressional committee the whole truth about the agency's operations in Chile. There is no mistaking the anger beneath Cynthia Helms' otherwise calm facade as she remembers the scene when District Judge Barrington Parker told Helms: "You now stand before this court in disgrace and shame."
This man -- to whom three U.S. presidents had entusted a nation's secrets and turned for advice -- was now the central figure in a controversy raging over which oath took precedence -- that of office or that taken before Congress. One particularly vociferous Washington columnist, whispering loudly in the row behind Cynthia Helms that day, was convinced that Richard Helms had been lying all along.
"I wanted to turn around and say, 'Look, why can't we just sit down and have an unemotional discussion and lay the facts on the table?" But of course I couldn't say that," says Cynthia Helms.
The experience left her not only with a lasting awareness of Washington's whims but also sympathy for others caught up in the web. The other day, for instance, she read that Carol Bauman, the wife of former Maryland representative Robert Bauman, had gotten a job after her husband was defeated for reelection last fall after admitting to the "twin compulsions" of homosexual tendencies and alcoholism.
It struck Helms that going out and taking that job had to be a tough thing for Carol Bauman to do. Helms thought she might drop Bauman a note to let her know that someone realized how difficult it was and that holding your head up is the only way to handle these things.
Sometimes it was her garden, sometimes it was her car, that served as Cynthia Helms' "safe house" for the nearly 10 years she and Richard Helms lived with electronic "bugs."
She'd learned that those were the only places she dared discuss sensitive matters with Helms, first when he was CIA director and later as U.S.. ambassador to Iran. Adapting real life to those intriguing traditions of spy thrillers hadn't been so difficult. What had been difficult was not letting all that cloak-and-dagger stuff but her.
"You realize it does make you tense even if you don't admit it -- always having to remember that what you say might be overheard," she is saying with the modulated English accent that some 30 years of living in America has not managed to obliterate.
"I knew nothing I should not know," she continues, seated in her comfortable brick colonial home in Wesley Heights, "but the very fact that I might discuss things I had heard or seen made one wary and live in rather different ways."
Wariness, in fact, almost became a way of life for her throughout much of the 1970s. She watched helplessly and worried constantly ("I'm a born worrier," she confesses) while her husband moved in and out of the headlines over mounting criticism of his seven-year stewardship of the CIA and its clandestine global operations.
She didn't always hold her tongue, though she had gotten to be pretty good at it when Helms was CIA director. In those days, living in what she calls -- with some understatement -- "rather different ways," meant presuming their hotel rooms were bugged whenever she and Helms traveled abroad for the agency. Sometimes they'd take along a radio to drown out their private conversations, sometimes they'd simply wait until they left the room or left the country.
Back at home in Washington they could expect a precautionary agency "sweep" of the house for bugging devices every two to three months though it never obviated the need for her "garden."
Then in 1973, before she and Helms set out for Tehran, they agreed not to say anything in private or in bed that would compromise him as U.S. ambassador.
"Coming as he did from the CIA, we agreed that Dick would live completely openly -- that there would be no room for suspicion. He would never go anywhere without guards and the Iranians would always know where he was," she says. "We agreed that we would never talk about anything substantive in placed where we might be bugged."
That included the embassy residence, a 24-acre property sold off by its original owner to pay a gambling debt, and picked up in the 1928 by the United States government for $60,000. Besides a comfortable upstairs apartment for the ambassador, there were the official reception rooms and the ubiquitous garden, where Cynthia and Richard could talk in private, in this case a refuge lush with manicured lawns, graceful fountains and pine and sycamore trees.
"One always presumed that there was a member of SAVAK (Iranian secret police) in the embassy who reported what you did or said. At least I always presumed it," ways Cynthia Helms.
She doesn't dwell much on those presumptions in her book, "An Ambassador's Wife in Iran," just published by Dodd, Mead & Co., a work she hauled out of the attic where it rested half-finished and unwanted by anybody until the Iranian hostage crisis began dominating the news.
The notable changes in her life style came, oddly enough, not in the surveillance she and her husband underwent in Tehran, but in the contrast of her own roles. As the ambassador's wife, tradition decreed that she be involved with the other embassy wives; as wife of the CIA director tradition decreed that she not be.
"There were no daytime CIA commitments with other CIA wives because many people working for the agency were undercover," she says.
Making the transition in roles hadn't been easy. She says she tried being evenhanded in her relationships with embassy wives. But there wasn't room for close friendships with them any more than there had been with the Iranians she met on the diplomatic circuit, in the university classroom studying Persian, or in such groups as the Tehran Rug Society, which she joined hoping to learn about Iran's culture, religion and history.
So she frequented the bazaars. traveled the countryside with visiting scholars and read a lot -- Iranian folk stories (which she may translate for a future book) and spy novels ("My publisher is looking for another Agatha Christie and maybe I should try my hand there," she muses, laughing).
By 1974, as Iran's internal political problems under the shah were intensifying, so were Richard Nixon's, requiring Richard Helms to return to Washington to appear before congressional hearings. Then it was to testify on the role the CIA had played in Watergate. The year before, at his Senate confirmation hearings, Helms had testified about CIA involvement in Chile's 1970 presidential elections.
They were "terribly difficult" times, Cynthia Helms says, who waited back in Tehran. Just how difficult she would not know until 1977 when the U.S. government, after 18 months of preparing its case against Helms, charged him with failing to tell the Senate committee about covert CIA operations in Chile.
She was one of the few, she says, who wanted Helms to stand trial rather than plead no contest, feeling it would clear the air. His lawyers took the opposite position, arguing that it would dominate their lives for a couple of years and in the end not be worth the trauma.
"There was so much that couldn't come out, things he could not say because of his position," she says. "There were other lives at stake. This is important. I think it's what the CIA people felt when they had that luncheon for Dick right afterwards and paid his [$2,000] fine."
In Richard Helms' view, she indicates, there was a higher purpose -- "the security of this country." Did she consider him heroic?
"Oh, no," she says. "It's like the hostages coming home -- he was just doing what he had to do."
She says Helms was not bitter and made "a marvelous transition" into a business he enjoys: international consulting with American firms doing business abroad. She, on the other hand, resented how "some people," whom she does not identify, made use of the case for their own political purposes.
Through it all the Helmses continued to go out socially because "you have to be realistic and face life as it really is.You can't live in a cocoon. I tried not to become too emotional but I certainly found it very difficult. I'm not at all sure that it's character-building."
Sometimes at dinner parties in those years the hostess seated her next to someone she would have preferred avoiding and then "since I don't believe in turning the other cheek, I'd certainly say what I felt. I think you have to speak up," she says.
The Helmses had been a favorite topic of conversation long before the CIA's covert activities finally came under fire. The tall, debonair Helms, father of a grown son, became a subject of Washington gossip in the summer of 1967 when he left his wife Julia and moved into the Chevy Chase Club.
The following year, the English-born and reared Cynthia McKelvie, mother of four, divorced her husband, a prominent orthopedic surgeon. In late 1968, she and Helms were married.
By late 1972, six years after Lyndon Johnson had appointed Helms to head the CIA, Richard Nixon called him to Camp David to inform him he was appointing a new director. If he were to become an ambassador, asked Nixon, what country would he prefer? When Helms said Iran, according to Cynthia Helms' reconstruction of the interview in her book, Nixon seemed to agree but wondered why Helms hadn't mentioned the Soviet Union.
"Dick said he was astonished. He realized Nixon was quite serious. Dick answered quietly that considering his background he would be reluctant to go there," she writes in the book.
While Helms was excited about the prospect of going to Iran, his wife describes her own feelings as "miserable. Selfish. Why should I want to leave my job and my children to become an unpaid working member of the diplomatic corps?" For seven years she had worked at the Smithsonian in various capacities and was head of Radio Smithsonian, responsible for interviews with the museum's curators, researchers and guest lecturers carried by 150 stations around the country. She found it a fascinating job that she hated to leave.
On the other hand, "the idea of living in Persia stirred a response." The "Rubaiyat" by Omar Khayyam of Nishapur, had left its mark and among her recollections was one of herself as a young WREN in the British Royal Navy spending two weeks' pay to buy an especially beautiful volume of its quatrains for a friend -- "the only present that I ever regretted giving." (She eventually made a pilgrimage to Nishapur where Khayyam was born around 1048 and which Genghis Khan destroyed in 1219.)
For Helms in Iran as U.S. ambassador, the years between 1973 and 1977 proved to be apocalyptic as both Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and President Richard Nixon were in what amounted to be the death throes of their respective careers. One of the last things Helms told the shah, according to Cynthia Helms, was that he would not survive if he didn't do something about "the terrible corruption."
"But he found it hard, too. He [Helms] said 'How do you tell a man he's not being told the truth? That's the job of his own people.' They [leaders] always believe that it's a conspiracy; yet part of it is their own lack of willingness to take responsibility themselves."
By 1977, with Jimmy Carter in the White House, Helms was back in Washington permanently. By that fall the Justice Department had wrapped up its investigation of Helms. But instead of indicting him for perjury, prosecutors initiated plea bargaining out of fear a trial might disclose top-secret information. Helms pleaded no contest.
"Thank heaven we had some wonderful friends who were marvelous through all this," says Cynthia Helms. "But it went on for a long time and I found it very hard."
Through it all, of course, Washington had been taking sides, as Washington always does. It's one of the constants of Washington. Another is how easily it can change sides.
"Oh, heavens, look at what's happened in the last month. It's hysterical, just hysterical what goes on in Washington," she says, starting to laugh. "The true story of Washington has never been written."