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What Impact Will Jesse Helms' Retirement Have on the Senate?

Aired August 22, 2001 - 19:30   ET



SEN. JESSE HELMS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: I would be 88 if I ran again in 2002 as was elected and lived to finish a sixth term. And this, my family and I have decided unanimously, that I should not do. And, ladies and gentlemen, I shall not.


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Tonight, Jesse Helms calls it quits! What's the impact on conservatives, the balance of power in the Senate, and on Elizabeth Dole?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic strategist Kiki McLean and David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union.

CARLSON: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE! It's the end of an era. For 50 years since his days as a Capitol Hill staffer, Jesse Helms has made a vocation, and then a hobby, of tormenting liberals. Now the 79-year-old conservative from North Carolina says he will retire from the United States Senate.


CARLSON: Conservatives will mourn the passing of the Helms era. Liberals will rejoice. For the Republican Party, however, it could be a major political problem.

North Carolina has changed since Helms first joined the Senate. Will the G.O.P. hold the seat? Some are suggesting that Elizabeth Dole may run. Dole is well-known, but is she ready for a campaign? And if not her, who?

The answer may be determined by the Helms legacy, whatever that is: advocate for freedom or political Neanderthal. Either way, the Senate will never be the same without him -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: David Keene, let's start with a moment of truth. Isn't it true the reason Jesse Helms quit today has nothing to do with his health? It's because the polls show that he could never win again. He's too conservative, even for North Carolina. DAVID KEENE, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION: You know, Bill, after every time that Jesse ran for reelection, the pundits in Washington said North Carolina is changed and this time he's going to be in trouble because it's not the North Carolina of the 1970's.

Jesse Helms is a legend in North Carolina. If he had wanted to run and had run, he would have won as he's won in the past. The fact is, though, the man would be 81 when he was reelected to his next term, and he and his wife had said a year ago that in this recess they'd sit down -- they'd go home to their home on the lake and they'd talk about it. And they decided enough was enough and he retired. That's why he got out.

CARLSON: Now, Kiki, isn't it true -- and I think you'll admit that it is -- that nobody is sadder about Helms' retirement than Democrats. You've lost one of your most useful bogeyman, and when you've got nobody to hate, the Democratic Party really loses its reason for being, doesn't it?

KIKI MCLEAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: See, Tucker, this is the difference between Democrats and Republicans. We don't hate people, we hate bad ideas, and Jesse Helms had a lot of bad ideas over years. And it's OK, because George W. Bush is still here and he has a lot of bad ideas. So we'll be pretty busy, even without Jesse Helms in the Senate, I think.

KEENE: The things that Democrats have said about Jesse over the years, it surprises me that you talk about ideas, because most of it has been very personal. Of course Democrats didn't like Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms was an inner-directed politician -- very different from today's politicians. He didn't look at polls.

MCLEAN: He attacked a lot of people.

KEENE: He stood up, he said this is what I believe, this is what I'll run on and this is what I'll do. And he never wavered.

PRESS: Let's talk about some of those, because clearly if you wanted to get a conservative in central casting, I mean, you'd go to Jesse Helms. Let's talk about ideas. Anti-gay rights and votes, anti- gay rights, anti-women's rights, anti-Martin Luther King birthday, anti-funding of United Nations, anti-restrictions of course, on tobacco ads, anti-environment and anti-funding for the arts. Here is Jesse Helms in his own words, just to remind you, David Keene.


HELMS: ... men's room, and -- and, write dirty words on the wall, let them up furnish their own crayon. Let them furnish their own wall, but don't ask the taxpayers to support it.



HELMS: ... say to the homosexuals, stop what you're doing. Do you realize that if they would stop what they're doing, there would not be one additional case of AIDS in the United States of America.


PRESS: Now, isn't that even too conservative for you? Aren't you embarrassed by somebody that far out?

KEENE: You'd be surprised what's not too conservative for me.

The fact is that Jesse, particularly in that first comment, was opposed to federal funding of the arts. That's a legitimate position. If you go back through Helms' career, from the very beginning, he was one of the first people in the United States Senate to stand up for a flat tax, for many of the things that today are central, not only to conservative thinking but to Republican thinking. Jesse Helms was perhaps, next to Ronald Reagan, the single-most important conservative in public life in the last four decades.

MCLEAN: David, I'll give you that, he was important in the conservative movement. And, Tucker, he was important in terms of taking it as far as right as it could possibly go.

Here's the bottom line. He has served nearly 30 years, and ably so to the things that he believed. But you know what's really sad? He served on ideas based on seeing the worst in people, and always believing that people would go to the most dark side.

And what this is really now is an opportunity for the new North Carolina to come forward. You know, David called him a legacy, and I'll tell you what I think is going to be a legacy about Jesse Helms: the last campaign ads he ran against Harvey Gantt. Those were not ads to be proud of.

You know, Black Beard is a legacy in North Carolina, too. The pirates lived on the Outer Banks.


MCLEAN: But it's not something to be proud of.

PRESS: Tucker started out tonight by saying it's an end of an era. Wouldn't you have to admit that there will never be another successful candidate as far to the right as Jesse Helms? There will never be the Republican Party as far as Jesse Helms.

KEENE: I don't know that that's true or not.

PRESS: End of an era, right?

KEENE: What Tucker is right about, and I've said the same thing, that they don't make them like Jesse anymore.

PRESS: Thank goodness.

KEENE: We're in an era where politicians look to the public and they look to the polls and they say "what should I say? Where is the crowd going? What can I do to get with them? MCLEAN: But shouldn't they know what their own constituents want? That's important.

KEENE: Of course they do. Jesse knew what his constituents wanted, and if you go to North Carolina, you find out that this a senator who fought for and helped his constituents.

But the fact is that as a politician, Jesse Helms was a man who stood up and he said, "This is what I believe in. Vote for me and I will fight for those things." How many politicians in today's world, how many of the younger politicians do that? Most of them are guided not by any kind of inner-principle, but by polls. Jesse Helms found...

MCLEAN: I think people would say that John Edwards of North Carolina has done just that with the Patients' Bill of Rights.


KEENE: Oh, my God.

CARLSON: That is so sad.

PRESS: Indeed he has.

MCLEAN: It's quite true, Tucker.

CARLSON: Let's -- and I'm glad you brought up another member of the Senate, because while professional campaign activists in the Democratic Party spend a lot of their time with these anti-Helms direct mail pieces, his actual colleagues in the Senate...

MCLEAN: The same way you do on Bill Clinton.

CARLSON: ... have a great deal of respect for Jesse Helms. I want you to listen to Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware explain what he thinks of Jesse Helms. Here is Joe Biden.


SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Helms could fix the U.N. And that's true. That is absolutely, positively true.


CARLSON: So here you have Jesse Helms being lauded by Joe Biden, no conservative, no Republican, for being effective. Isn't that the bottom line? He got things done.

MCLEAN: Being lauded by the U.N. I gave you that, that there are things -- the man committed 30 years to public service, and there are things to respect on both sides of the aisle. But what we're talking about now is where does North Caroline go? The interesting thing to me is that the North Carolina Republicans are now talking about drafting Elizabeth Dole, a woman who has yet to win an election or a campaign, somebody who, in fact, could stir up one of the most divisive Republican primaries, because the institutional Republican Party in North Carolina is so conservative, they probably can't even accept someone who has taken the moderate position she has on choice and on gun safety.


KEENE: Kiki, I'm not so sure you know much about the...

MCLEAN: When it comes to Jesse Helms, what you're looking at is somebody whose voice probably will no longer be missed in the national debate because it was guided by talking about hateful things.

CARLSON: Well, wait a second.

KEENE: Listen, I can't let that pass, Kiki.

MCLEAN: The reality is, he's done precisely what he said he was going to do. He took his position...


KEENE: Kiki, you know, I could sit here, and I actually believe that a lot of liberal Democrats say hateful things about conservatives, that they stir up passions on this whole Medicare and Social Security thing, that they're appealing to the worst instincts, that they're trying to scare people...

MCLEAN: And it's wrong when people...

KEENE: Oh, it's wrong when they do that. But the fact of the matter is, Jesse Helms, in his period in the United States Senate, has stood consistently for lower taxes, for smaller government, for less government intrusion.

MCLEAN: And there are positions he has...

KEENE: And you don't like that. That's fine. You started this program.


KEENE: Wait a minute, Kiki. You started this program by saying you disagreed with his ideas, and every word from your mouth has been a personal attack on a man who has not earned that personal attack.

MCLEAN: It's not a personal attack. I actually talked about the admiration I had for somebody who's given 30 years of public service. And I will say again to you that, as Tucker said before, he took his positions and he held them.

CARLSON: Well, then, you raise the...


MCLEAN: The difference is, I think Jesse Helms was a senator of yesteryear for North Carolina, Tucker. And now the question is going to be what the future of North Carolina is.

CARLSON: Let me ask you a question, Kiki. You describe Senator Helms as hateful.

MCLEAN: No, I said some of the things he's done are hateful.

CARLSON: You pointed to this famous Harvey Gantt ad, which I took the time to preview again today. He accuses Harvey Gantt of being for racial preferences. Harvey Gantt was for racial preferences. That's the text of the ad.

MCLEAN: I think that there are people who would say that the ads that he ran against Harvey Gantt bordered on, if not crossed the line, of racist.

CARLSON: That's an incantation. You're not...


PRESS: Let's get to that topic, because I think Jesse Helms has said and done so many despicable things in his career, in addition to helping fund the U.N., I'll give him that. Although they didn't get their money yet.


KEENE: Thank God.

PRESS: It's hard to pick the most despicable act, but I think it has to be what we're talking about, the ad that he ran against Harvey Gantt in 1990, some people may not have seen it, may forget it. Here is a little bit of it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?


PRESS: Now I don't think that is subtle at all. That is downright racist.

KEENE: It is an attack on affirmative action and quotas, a legitimate attack. People differ. You support them, I don't. Jesse Helms doesn't, you do.

PRESS: Here is what is implied in there. What is implied is, I want you to know, I am running against a black man. I am reminding people I am running against a black man. I'm asking people to vote against him because he is black. That is what that ad says, David.

KEENE: Bill, everybody in North Carolina knew that one of the candidates was white and one of the candidates was black. That isn't something anybody needed to be reminded of. And I think I think you are really stretching to -- to talk about it in those terms.

MCLEAN: One of the things that I think you are forgetting is that in 30 years of service, there are statesmen-like qualities about Jesse Helms' career, the kind of service he gave. But the fact of the matter is, in addition to being a long serving statesman in United States Senate, he is a politician. And there are political actions and political decisions he made that can be controversial.

And the other thing is, you know, it is not just liberals, and not just Democrats who have had a hard time with his positions on occasion, lots of moderates and on occasion many Republicans actually have had a hard time with that.

CARLSON: I have theory, Kiki, and I want to inflict it on you.

MCLEAN: Please, Tucker, I love your theories.

CARLSON: Let me start with this. I want you to listen to Bill Cobey, who is the chair of the Republican Party in North Carolina. This is his summing up of Jesse Helms, the man, the politician.


BILL COBEY, CHAIRMAN, N.C. REPUBLICAN PARTY: You can't reinvent another Jesse Helms. Senator Helms is so unique in so many ways. One way, is, unlike most politicians who don't want you to know where they stand on issues, he will go out of his way to make sure you know where he stands.


CARLSON: OK, so here you have...


MCLEAN: I think that is something I probably agree with.

CARLSON: That is exactly right. Here is Jesse Helms, he is straightforward. He stands for something indisputably. Against him we compare Clinton, John Edwards...

MCLEAN: George Bush.

CARLSON: And the comparison is embarrassing.

MCLEAN: George Bush.

CARLSON: You look at Jesse Helms and you say to yourself, you know, I don't agree with him, but compared to him I am embarrassed by Bill Clinton. That is why you don't like him.


KEENE: Let me comment for a second on that for a second because it goes to the roll that Jesse Helms played when Kiki talks about sometimes he upset Republicans and moderates. He emerged very quickly after his election to the Senate as, in essence, the conscience of conservatives in Washington.

He didn't vary when others were -- were bending to the political wind, Jesse always said, this is what I believe and it is what should you believe. They may not have agreed with him. They ultimately respected him but that is an important role in the legislature and Jesse Helms took it on himself and for all those years, he filled that role.

MCLEAN: The flip side to that is -- I don't know who called him this -- but somebody once referred to him as an example of porcupine politics, right? Not just somebody who needles, but somebody who can't get along with anybody -- this is in terms of politics -- about bringing coalitions together.

CARLSON: It's better than fuzzy bunny politics.

PRESS: All right we are going to take a break right on that point, and moving forward after Jesse Helms says "no" will Elizabeth Dole say "yes" and will North Carolina say yes to her? More CROSSFIRE coming up.


SEN. JESSE HELMS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: One thing is for sure: We will never forget you. And we will always be grateful for all that you have meant to us. Thank you dear friends, god bless you, and as Ronald Reagan always used to say, "God Bless America."


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Jesse Helms had not even made it officials before speculation began on who might succeed him. Former presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole is the most talked about Republican. Secretary of state, Elaine Marshall, the leading Democrat.

Helms departure of course could also shake up that tenuous balance over in the United States Senate. Looking at the politics of it all tonight, president of American Conservative Union David Keene, and Democratic strategist Kiki McLean.

On the right, Jesse Helms Junior, Tucker Carlson.

CARLSON: Take that as a high compliment, Bill Press. Now Kiki, apparently there has been a dramatic change in policy in the Democratic Party. It was announced yesterday by Terry McAuliffe here on CNN. You may not be aware of it, I want you to listen. This is Terry McAuliffe talking about Elizabeth Dole and her prospects in North Carolina.


TERRY MCAULIFFE, DNC CHAIRMAN: Libby Dole has not lived in North Carolina for over 30 years. I hope she hasn't been voting down there because you wonder if that is even legal. But she has not lived there for 30 years.


CARLSON: That is Terry McAuliffe on "Libby" Dole. Now, it turns out that the Democratic Party is now against people, women, running for Senate in a state they haven't lived in quite some time. This is a kind of a dramatic change, isn't it, Kiki?

MCLEAN: You are talking about two different states. The reality is Hillary Rodham Clinton...

CARLSON: Good answer.

MCLEAN: Tucker, Hillary Rodham Clinton had to address that as an issue head on. She had to answer for it, she had to talk to people of New York. What Terry McAuliffe is saying, is Elizabeth Dole is going to have to do the very same thing and that is going to be a challenge.

Let's admit, New York and North Carolina are two very different states. It is a challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton overcame. It is a challenge Elizabeth Dole faces.

CARLSON: But I am interested in the theme here. Here is a very qualified indisputably qualified woman...

MCLEAN: Indisputably? Apparently voters who (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the presidential campaign didn't think so.

CARLSON: She expresses interest in serving her state and she is reflexively batted down by the Democratic Party. What is this?


MCLEAN: You asked him for a political analysis, and he gave you an honest answer, which was she hasn't lived there for 30 years and it is a challenge that she us going to have to overcome. Because in the end, that is really one of the minor challenges Elizabeth Dole faces in her state. Her positions on gun control, her positions on as a pro-choice Republican, are going make it very difficult in a very right wing Republican primary in state of North Carolina.

PRESS: David.

KEENE: I think that this analogy between her and Hillary is a real stretch.

MCLEAN: Tucker's analogy.

CARLSON: Thank you.

KEENE: Mrs. Clinton was not from New York, had not been from New York, hadn't gone to school there, wasn't born there. Elizabeth Dole is from North Carolina, went to school in North Carolina, has been intimately connected with the state. Now I am not saying she is going to be nominee. She is going to face real problems because there are other people who have their eye on that nomination. In fact the Republicans have a pretty strong field of potential candidates down there of which she may be the strongest.

PRESS: But here is my question to you, she has been as you know, a distinguished person: President of the Red Cross, cabinet secretary to a couple of United States presidents. And we saw last year what a good campaigner she is. I mean she did a great job, Elizabeth Dole last year, rounding up the sorority sisters.

We see over and over again the video of Elizabeth -- this was her high point of the whole campaign. So, my question is, yes, as others have said, she hasn't lived there for a long time, she hasn't voted there, but why do you think she would be any better as a Senate candidate than she was a presidential candidate? A sorority sisters is going to get her to the United States Senate?

KEENE: That is the challenge she faces. I don't know that she would be or that she wouldn't be. I do know, that as you go into this race for the succession to Jesse Helms, among the Republicans, that Elizabeth Dole starts ahead of the other candidates. She is well liked, better known, and she is going to be the front-runner. Whether she can sustain that remains to remains to be seen.

PRESS: Here is my question, if I may, just to follow up on that, the White House is recruiting candidates. In California they are recruiting pro-choice Dick Riordan to run for governor. In North Carolina, as Kiki just pointed out, they're recruiting pro-choice Elizabeth Dole, pro-gun control, pro-ban on assault weapons Elizabeth Dole to run for the United States Senate. What do you think, as head of the American Conservative Union, what do you think of this White House? Do they stand for anything?

KEENE: I don't think the White House is looking at her position on those things. I will say one thing...

PRESS: But they're recruiting her as a candidate.

KEENE: Her Second Amendment positions would lose her the primary in North Carolina, unless she modifies them. The positions that she took in the Republican primaries for president knocked her out as much as the dancing in a chorus line knocked her out, because she managed to make the wrong decisions. Now, she has a record, and Mrs. Dole, who I know, is instinctively, herself, conservative. She is going to have to take different advice and she's going to have to modify those views if she wants to run in North Carolina.


KEENE: Kiki may think that North Carolina has changed, but North Carolina ain't New York.

MCLEAN: Well, the North Carolina Republican Party. So basically, what David has said is she's going to have to do some flip- flops to be competitive in a Republican primary there.

CARLSON: But if she listens to your advice, I'm not sure what she's going to do, because your reading of North Carolina politics is puzzling to me. On the one hand you said that Jesse Helms has grown totally out of step with North Carolina, that he's Paleolithic in his political views as compared to the state. Then you say, almost in the same sentence, that Mrs. Dole is too liberal!

MCLEAN: No, in a Republican primary. That's the difference.

KEENE: In the state.

You actually believe, Bill...

MCLEAN: In the Republican primary. Tucker, I think that...


PRESS: We have to have one at a time.

MCLEAN: Let me finish. Let me make a couple points here.

There are some interesting statistics around the state of North Carolina, politically. Since 1980, OK, Republicans have always won in presidential years, the top state elections. Democrats have always won in the off years, with one exception, and that is a Jesse Helms reelection campaign where that Harvey Gantt ad ran, and it was a much closer than Jesse Helms ever expected it to be. So there are some trends.

In the end, when Terry McAuliffe and Jim Gilmore, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, sit back and take a look, they look up and they see the same thing, because they're both astute politicians. They see nothing but risk for Republicans, and nothing but opportunity for Democrats. And that's the definition of going into this race.

CARLSON: I'm not sure Jim Gilmore sees that, but...

MCLEAN: I think Jim Gilmore sees it.

PRESS: You had asked a question before.

KEENE: My question is, Bill, do you think a pro-gun control liberal, as Kiki would urge, liberal candidate could win the North Carolina general election?

PRESS: The general election? Yes. Another John Edwards could win. Elaine Marshall can win in North Carolina. I don't think she'd win the Republican primary, but I want to come back, because I don't want to end the without saying something good about Jesse Helms.


PRESS: Here's what I want to say good about Jesse Helms. I think his foreign policy is actually -- other than Cuba -- is more engaged and more real than George W. Bush. And the example I want to give is Russia, recently. When George W. Bush goes, he meets Putin for the first time and he gives this stupid statement about, "I looked into his soul and I trusted him," and here's what Jesse Helms had to say about that. He said -- quote -- "Mr. Putin is far, in my judgment, far from deserving the powerful political prestige and influence that comes from an excessively personal endorsement by the president of the United States."

Basically, Jesse Helms was saying, "Bush, you're a junior. Take some advice from me and stop pretending."

KEENE: Jesse Helms has never hesitated to say what he thinks, and usually what he thinks makes some sense, regardless of who he disagrees with. But let me make two comments...

PRESS: That's pretty damning of Bush, isn't it?

KEENE: Make two personal comments about Jesse, because I think that's what we ought to talk about to some degree, at this point.

You know, I had a -- before the election, we had a meeting where we were briefing African ambassadors on American politics and all. One of the ambassadors said, "Well, what American cares about Africa?" And the answer came back not from our group, but from the Raleigh "News & Observer," anti-Helms newspaper, which published a front page thing saying that it's very clear that the man in the United States Senate who cares most about aid to Africa and health care in Africa and all is Senator Jesse Helms. On a lot of these issues -- human rights in China, Jesse Helms. On all of these issues he is engaged.

But what I wanted to talk about was Jesse Helms, personally, because there has been attacks on him.

CARLSON: Well, we could -- I know I could go on about the great things about Jesse Helms, but as Jesse Helms himself might say, no! We are out of time.

David Keene, Kiki McLean, thank you both very much.

PRESS: Commentator "no."

CARLSON: Commentator no. Executive no. Bill Press and I will be back in just a moment with our closing comments to sum up the legacy of Jesse Helms. It's better than you think. We'll see you in a moment.


PRESS: Tucker, I've got to tell you, this is not good news for Democrats. I mean, for years, Jesse Helms has been the No. 1 fund- raiser. He's like a big cash register for Democrats, and now he's going to be gone. This is sad. I mean, we're going to have to depend on Trent Lott and Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, and it won't be as juicy.

CARLSON: Actually, I think the Democratic Party is in jeopardy of losing its vital center.

(LAUGHTER) CARLSON: Because the party does revolve around the bogeyman it creates. I remember when gay activists vandalized Jesse Helms' house. I remember reading countless editorials in "The New York Times" attacking him as a man of evil. And throughout it all, he was completely unperturbed. And I must say. you have to admire, even if you don't agree with him, his toughness.

PRESS: I don't admire him at all.

CARLSON: Oh, go ahead and admire him, Bill. Come on, just a little bit.

PRESS: Democrats without Jesse Helms are going to be like...

CARLSON: They don't...

PRESS: Let me finish -- like Tucker without Hillary and Bill Clinton to beat up on every night. You will be lost!

CARLSON: Wrong. I'd be happier. It'd be like taking a splinter out.

PRESS: No way.

CARLSON: I'd be a happier man.

PRESS: Goodbye, Jesse.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

PRESS: Good night, Jesse. From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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