North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' announcement that he plans to retire at the end of the current Senate term should cause a lot of people in Washington to bow their heads in shame. Few have been subjected to more undeserved abuse than the gentleman from Raleigh.
Indeed, one of the great tragedies of modern political life is the frequency with which political differences become excuses for vicious, personal attacks.
We established an inviolable rule at The Heritage Foundation on my first day on the job more than 24 years ago: Keep it civil. We may disagree vehemently with someone on policy or tactics, but that's where it ends. We realize that many fine people who care every bit as much as we do about our country have different opinions on what's best. They may be naïve, they may be misguided, but they're not evil.
It's a shame that Sen. Helms, during his nearly 30 years in Washington, has not been treated as generously. Even now, his detractors pile on.
One recent newspaper editorial, for example -- written no doubt by someone who has never had the pleasure of visiting with the courtly North Carolinian -- was filed with the usual bile. "Mr. Helms ... brought to the Senate chamber all the nuance and depth of trashy talk radio," it said. He's full of "hurtful ... bombast." He's "an alarmist," guilty of "foolishness," "mischief" and "divisive antics."
Sen. Helms doesn't deserve this.
Sure, he's a tough cookie, able to win political fights that the experts -- and often his Republican colleagues -- have written off as lost causes. That's one of the reasons he's known as "Senator No," because he's managed over these past three decades to stop any number of bad proposals from becoming law.
That, apparently, is why many of his opponents have demonized him. He refuses to give up. He says what's on his mind. He pushes the envelope. And he wins more often than he loses.
But an ogre he isn't. The political tough guy the liberal special interests love to hate is one of the last of a disappearing breed: a true Southern Gentlemen. You wouldn't know it from the names he's called.
You also wouldn't know that he and his wife of 59 years, Dorothy, have three children -- one of them adopted -- and seven grandchildren. That's Jesse Helms.
You wouldn't know that Sen. Helms has occasionally delayed Senate "roll call" votes while he graciously gives star-struck tourists from around the country -- the real owners of the Capitol -- impromptu tours of the Senate Reception Room and lessons on the Senate's history. That's also Jesse Helms.
For those of us who care about public policy, he will leave an astounding -- almost Reaganesque -- legacy. His fingerprints are everywhere.
Almost single handedly, he forced the U.S. Congress to force the United Nations to correct its wasteful ways. He championed the U.S. military, even when that was unpopular. He has fought big government's encroachments on our pocketbooks and personal liberties. And, not surprisingly, he has been a staunch defender of the family.
Yet his efforts to make our country a better place have earned him nothing but liberal scorn. As I write this, another "enlightened" liberal has appeared in print with a column decrying Sen. Helms as a southern "mossback."
When "Senator No" observes his 80th birthday on Oct. 18, I'd be happy to light the candles. This is a good man -- strong, principled, and honest -- who cares passionately about his family, his state and his country. The wails of the sophisticates aside, it's too bad we don't have more politicians just like him.
Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
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