The drama of those savage, fateful days is being re-enacted today in Washington in a contest billed as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Jesse Helms, playing the part of the bull Neanderthal, is locked in an allegorical fight to the death with William Weld, a champion humanoid in the Republican ranks.
The pretext for combat is the refusal of Mr Helms, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to allow Mr Weld, who has just retired as governor of Massachusetts, the honour of serving his country as ambassador to Mexico. President Clinton has nominated Mr Weld for the job but Mr Helms, citing Mr Weld's support for the medicinal use of marijuana, says that the ex-governor is too soft for the all-important task of subduing the Mexican narco-traffickers. Suspicious of humanity's democratic impulses, Mr Helms has taken full advantage of the tyrannical powers his weighty office affords to deny his free-thinking rival the courtesy of a senatorial hearing, the constitutional prerequisite for all ambassadorial confirmations.
But these are trifles. The underlying cause of the war concerns an altogether more profound, more elemental question that has more to do with Darwin than with drugs. The Republican species has reached a fork on the evolutionary road. Will the Helms strain go the way of its dinosaur forebears or will it prevail in battle and condemn "homo sapiens" to extinction?
Mr Weld threw down the gauntlet 12 days ago when he announced his decision to quit the cosy humanist citadel of Boston and go to war - "a land war, if need be", he proclaimed - for the future of civilisation. Mr Helms took up the challenge, responding last week with a bravado compellingly evocative of great Neanderthal leaders of yesteryear. "I'm determined to stand still," he bayed, "unless somebody pushes me aside."
But it was Mr Weld, blessed with a weightier cerebral mass, who was best equipped to put into words the nature of the contest in which the Grand Old Party is engaged. "In plain language, I am not Senator Helms' kind of Republican," he declared. "I do not pass his litmus test on social policy. Nor do I want to."
Mr Helms' Neanderthal political beliefs possess the solitary virtue of brutal simplicity. During the 25 years that he has sat in the US Congress he has based all his judgements on a literal reading of the teachings of the Old Testament. The Cold War was a Holy War between the forces of darkness and the Lord's vengeful warriors, anti-Communist torturers, assassins and mass murderers in Latin America and Africa whom he lovingly grappled to his righteous bosom. A Southerner of the old school, he has only recently disabused himself of the notion that his black compatriots are tainted with the curse of Ham. More recently he has been turning his atavistic fury on homosexuals and the purveyors of godlessness and pornography at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mr Weld, a wealthy patrician bred in the eastern Ivy League establishment, looks down his nose at the uncouth North Carolina senator. Scornful of fundamentalist ideologues, he favours gay and abortion rights and takes a generously indulgent view of human foible. While Mr Helms views Mexico as a nation of dangerous, dark-hued desperadoes, Mr Weld's respect for his neighbours' common humanity is such that he has declared his intention to do the Neanderthal unthinkable and take a course in Spanish.
Chairman of the mighty Foreign Relations Committee Mr Helms might be, but he is too congenitally obtuse to understand that no other national security concern is more urgent for the US today than Mexico. America's giant southern neighbour is undergoing a political upheaval the like of which has not been seen in 70 years and having a bright, able and politically sensitive ambassador in place in Mexico City in the event of any number of calamitous contingencies will be vital to the US in the coming years.
And yet the broader strategic picture has been entirely obscured by the dust of the primeval in-house scrap raging among the thespians of Capitol Hill. The drama will run and run at least until the end of the summer, ending only when one of the two great rivals lies vanquished on the stage floor.
It may well be, for thus the critics prophesy, that the day will belong to the prehistoric House of Helms. But not the war. New champions will follow in the wake of the pretender Weld. History is on the side of the humanoids. Only the fittest will survive and, at 75, the old warhorse is doomed soon to pass away and join his fallen comrades in Neanderthal nirvana. The future does not belong to Jesse Helms.Reuse content