Former Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.), author of Here’s Where I Stand, retired in January 2003 after 30 years as a leading conservative. Helms gained national exposure first on the pages of Human Events. On Feb. 10, 1962, Human Events reprinted a commentary Helms delivered on WRAL-TV. The following is reprinted from Helms’ book by arrangement with Random House. Copyright © 2005 by the Jesse Helms Center.
The Raleigh News & Observer dubbed me “Senator No.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment, but I certainly took it as one.
There was plenty to stand up and say “No” to during my first of five terms representing the people of North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.
That was why I had sought election in 1972—to try to derail the freight train of liberalism that was gaining speed toward its destination of “government-run” everything, paid for with big tax bills and record debt.
My goal, when my wife, Dot, and I decided I would run, was to stick to my principles and stand up for conservative ideals.
After a dozen years as news executive and on-the-air editorialist at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, I wasn’t interested in a popularity contest and surely didn’t care about anything the big newspapers called me. I saw how they constantly ridiculed conservative ideas and conservative people.
By some twist of logic, the big newspapers decided that the way to be “progressive” was to toss aside the underpinnings of our society. Anyone who thought differently was dismissed as “out of touch.” I’ve been called a “troglodyte” on more than one occasion when I angered some writer or some group who wanted me to get out of their way and let them proceed with their unrestrained liberal agenda.
In my first Senate campaign, the press took a look and decided the slogan, “He’s One of Us,” was some sort of attack on the nationality of my opponent’s parents. As it turned out, the bad press back home—where I also worked as a sportswriter and city editor as a young man—was just the beginning of the fire I was to draw.
A gentleman I knew back in Wingate, N.C., often said it wasn’t a good idea to get in an argument with folks who bought ink by the barrel and paper by the ton, and I agreed with that.
I decided not to waste my time debating my critics. Over the years, I saved the U.S. Treasury a lot of money on press secretaries, until I eventually had to have one to deal with the deluge of media requests.
My staff wasn’t always as thick-skinned as I was. One new aide was all set to fire off a response to a highly critical editorial. I had to tell him, “Son, just so you understand: I don’t care what the New York Times says about me. And nobody I care about cares what the New York Times says about me.”
The young fellow came to understand that I answer first to my Creator, then to my conscience. If that brought conflict or created some pressure, that was the price of doing business the way I thought was right.
Principles vs. Preferences
Too many politicians think that the road to success lies in being “open.” Too often, that is simply another word for “hollow.” I believe leaders must have principles and must stand up for them.
I told my young staff that the way to be successful in politics and remain true to your principles is to know the distinction between your principles and your preferences.
On your principles, you should never yield; you should be prepared to be defeated. But on your preferences, you’d better be prepared to compromise because that’s where you demonstrate that you can engage with others.
An awful lot of politicians never understand the difference. They compromise their principles, and they fight to the death on their preferences. They end up being frustrated and unsuccessful—and failures at achieving their objectives.
When I took my seat in the Senate in January 1973, there were 42 Republicans, one Conservative, one Independent and 56 Democrats.
I was 51 years old and probably not much like many of those other Republicans. They enjoyed being considered moderates, even liberal. There were more conservatives over on the Democratic side.
The Republicans were so outnumbered that they had become comfortable with the idea that they never would gain control of the Senate. Instead, they created a sort of gentlemen’s club, for which I had no affinity. They didn’t want to make any waves; I wanted to drain the swamp.