The argument over federal tobacco price supports always has been intense in Congress, but this year it has taken an unusual turn with North Carolina's senators making personal attacks on two congressional colleagues who have raised questions about the program.
In appearances before home audiences during the August recess, Sen. Jesse Helms and his Republican protege, John P. East, referred directly to past personal problems experienced by Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) and Rep. Frederick W. Richmond (D-N.Y.).
The two Republicans' attacks have drawn sharp editorial criticism in North Carolina, where flue-cured tobacco is a $1 billion annual industry, and brought Eagleton and Richmond a number of apologetic messages from North Carolina voters.
Eagleton is sponsoring a farm-bill amendment, likely to be debated in the Senate this week, that would alter the tobacco program by providing assistance only to farmers who actually grow the leaf. Many tobacco growing allotments now are held by corporations and persons who are not farmers, including Dorothy Helms, the senator's wife, although Eagleton has not mentioned that point.
Richmond, whose advocacy of the federal food stamp program has put him at odds with Helms, had been quoted in the Raleigh News and Observer as saying that Helms' attacks on social programs antagonized some legislators to such a degree that they might retaliate against tobacco.
Helms responded by telling a television interviewer, "I'm not going to yield to any blackmail from some loudmouth congressman from Brooklyn . . . one who has a curious lifestyle, I might point out."
East went even further at a press conference, where he was asked about Richmond's observations.
He said, inaccurately, "Congressman Richmond is now serving in a rehabilitation program because of a morals charge in the nation's capital. . . I think when a man is under a court order because of dropped charges on a criminal prosecution, it tells you something, possibly, about the character of the individual."
Richmond was arrested in 1978 on charges of soliciting a young man for sexual acts. The charges were dropped when Richmond pleaded guilty and agreed to participate in a one-month rehabilitation program for first offenders. The case caused little stir in New York--Richmond was reelected with ease.
At the same press conference, East was asked about Eagleton's criticism of the tobacco program. "Now, he was George McGovern's running mate, you know, in 1972, and then dropped out because it turned out he had mental problems . . . ."
Eagleton was dropped by McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee, after disclosures that the Missouri senator previously had been hospitalized and had undergone electroshock treatment for depression.
Eagleton last week received a two-page "letter of explanation" from East.
Eagleton replied to East in a terse personal note Friday. "Judging from what I read, your remarks have caused more discomfort to you than to me," he said.
Before Helms and East do legislative battle with Eagleton, they'll have to contend with a couple of Republican colleagues whose names were not mentioned during the recess. Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Jake Garn of Utah, going farther than Eagleton, are proposing elimination of the tobacco program.