Senator with a one-track mind

John Carlin in Washington on Jesse Helms, crusader against homosexualit y and close friend of the tobacco industry

John Carlin
Friday 07 July 1995 23:02

Jesse Helms quit cigarettes in 1992 after undergoing heart surgery. All his life until then he had smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes, called "coffin nails" by some Americans. Whenever people lit up in his presence he would nod and say, " 'preciate it".

Senator Helms, the 73-year-old Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has always appreciated those who support the tobacco industry because the tobacco industry has always supported him. His constituency is North Carolina, where tobacco farming nets the economy $1bn a year. His home is the North Carolina town of Raleigh, named after Sir Walter, he who first brought the cancerous weed to Elizabethan England.

This week Mr Helms, a senator since 1973, told the New York Times that government funding for people with Aids should be cut because the disease is acquired through "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct". "We've got to have some common sense about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts," the senator said.

To which the mother of a 13-year-old boy who died of Aids in 1988 following a blood transfusion replied: "I wonder if he feels the same about Americans dying of cancer because they smoke." Mr Helms patently does not. The only similarity between Mr Helms and the anti-smoking lobby lies in the hysteria of their discourse.

Here are a few quotations from the Helms collection:

n in 1987, commenting on an HIV prevention comic book, "The subject matter is so obscene, so revolting, it's difficult for me to stand here and talk about it. I may throw up."

n in 1988, "There is not one single case of Aids reported in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."

n in 1990, during his re-election campaign: "Think about it. Homosexuals and lesbians, disgusting people, marching in our streets, demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other. How do you like them apples?"

n in 1994, on free condom distribution in Washington: "Where and why did this city, the nation's capital, start to carry its values in the crotch?"

Mr Helms' own values indicate that he holds sex to be more evil than murder. The record shows that over the years he has leapt to the defence of Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, the death squad leader responsible for El Salvador's "murder in the cathedral", the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. He has stood up for Pinochet in Chile, the generals in Argentina and Mangosutu Buthelezi, leader of Inkatha, in South Africa, as well as apartheid regimes.

Between 1960 and 1972 he was employed by a North Carolina radio station as a political commentator. He would rail with as much vitriol then as now against "the muck of degeneracy". Once he chastised a state university lecturer for including Andrew Marvell's ''To His Coy Mistress'' in his English course. The lecturer was promptly removed.

The name of Mr Helms' employer during those formative years was the Tobacco Radio Network. Today, as an elected public servant, he continues to receive money from the tobacco industry. In exchange for addressing public rallies and battling on the Senate floor to ensure the continued profitability of the cigarette business he has received free holiday trips and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

In 1990 North Carolina honoured Mr Helms with a museum where visitors may come and study his bon mots and peruse his memorabilia.

The museum would not have been built had it not been for the largesse of Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, which contributed $200,000 (pounds 130,000) towards the project, and other tobacco companies which between them put up another $100,000.

Mr Helms has been accused of all things by his detractors, not least of hypocrisy. This is perhaps an unfair charge. His Senate record shows that he has voted consistently against bills designed to discourage the purchase of cigarettes, to clean up America's air and water, to impose restraints on the industrial use of asbestos - evidence that he has displayed consistency in one important respect. Homosexual love might be unnatural in Mr Helms' book but buggering up nature is fine so long as it is done in the name of profit and the American Way.

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