July 09, 2008

Helms Again

The dignified comments by Paul Weyrich about Jesse Helms that were posted on this website and the ensuing flurry of responses caused me to think about the late senator?s changing relation to Israel and what might have motivated it. I agree with Ron Lewenberg that Helms made a distinction between the American Jews, who were mostly ranged among his critics on the left, and the Israelis, whose courage and patriotism he praised. Although Helms might not have expressed that distinction in quite those words, he clearly recognized that Israeli and American liberal Jews were very different human types. But there were also practical considerations that influenced the strong support that he provided the Israeli government, and particularly during his last two terms. Many of his voters were Evangelicals, including Dispensationalists, and it would have been hard for Helms to maintain his conservative Christian base without showing solidarity with the enthusiastic Zionism of his core voters.

Another contributing factor was the once unlikely support that neoconservatives began to shower on Helms once he had moved decidedly into the pro-Israel camp. This became particularly apparent during his first election campaign in 1990 against the black Democrat Harvey Gantt, when Helms played up the fact that his opponent had amassed a fortune as a recipient of government-mandated set asides. Rather than jumping on board the Jewish liberal bandwagon with e.g. David Broder, who spent the next decade denouncing Helms as the ?last racist senator,? neoconservative publicists openly defended Helm?s opposition to racial quotas. Bill Bennett was sent to North Carolina to campaign for Helms, and the then Secretary of Education and neoconservative celebrity worked to pull enough Fundamentalist black votes over to the Republican column to help Helms gain a tight victory. In 1996 things were different, and Helms trounced the liberal darling and quota-beneficiary Gantt with little trouble, a success that my friend (and Jesse?s retainer) Boyd Cathy could explain in great detail. But certainly after the election of 1990 Helms might have felt a debt of gratitude to neoconservatives, who had vocally come over to his side, and this might have given him one more reason to court Zionist support. Much of this is speculation but it fits easily into what I knew and saw of the late illustrious senator. 

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