As House Republicans last month sparred over spending cuts to help pay for a Hurricane Katrina federal relief tab that could top $100 billion, retired Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, dubbed "Senator No" for his resistance to big government and bloated spending, quietly celebrated his 84th birthday at home in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Helms, who retired in 2003 after 30 years in the U.S. Senate, has battled prostate cancer and had open heart surgery. His wife of 63 years, Dorothy "Dot" Helms, recently told a North Carolina newspaper that her husband also has memory problems and doesn't accept public speaking engagements. Despite declining health, Mr. Helms recently released his memoirs, Here's Where I Stand, and told WORLD that he still remembers the conservative philosophy that drove his high-profile career.
When Mr. Helms first ran for Senate in 1972 he wanted to "derail the freight train of liberalism that was gaining speed toward its destination of 'government-run' everything, paid for with big taxes and record debt," he writes. Three decades later, members of his own party are running up record debt.
Mr. Helms told WORLD that he understands the need for humanitarian relief on a national level, but also says Congress should couple funds for disaster relief with reductions in spending: "It is always right to remind all legislators that the money they are spending is not theirs-or the government's-it is the people's money and they must not be asked to bankroll waste or cover costs that should be borne by the private sector."
After Hurricane Floyd flooded much of the eastern portion of Mr. Helms' home state of North Carolina in 1999, causing $6 billion in damage, the senator pushed for a coalition of private, local, state, and federal aid to pay the bill. He thinks the Gulf Coast should do the same, and says the business and private sectors "provide real hope for communities that have lost so much."
Mr. Helms is hesitant to say whether big spending and big government is undermining the strength of his party, but he does call for a return to ideas from the past: "The conservative movement has a great opportunity to grow and thrive if it will stand firm for the principles that helped it grow in the 70s, 80s, and 90s." The senator, well known for his black-and-white approach to politics, says true conservatives need to be "clarifying their principles [and] exerting their influence. . . . Conservatism is a philosophy that cannot be comfortable with compromise. . . . You either are a conservative or you are not."
These days Mr. Helms spends his time applying his conservative principles and Christian faith to an area he says he is "ashamed" he neglected for much of the last 20 years of his career: fighting AIDS. In his memoir, Mr. Helms says he long believed AIDS was a disease that would "probably be confined to those in high-risk populations." Toward the end of his career he realized: "I was wrong." In 2002 alone, he notes in his book, "More than a half million babies in the developing world contracted [HIV] from their mothers, despite the fact that drugs and therapies exist that could have virtually eliminated" the mother-to-child transmissions. He also notes that by the end of the year 2003, "one in five adults in Southern Africa was living with HIV/AIDS."
Mr. Helms told WORLD that the African AIDS pandemic has moved him to spend his last years working to save the lives of others: "It is because of my faith that I am determined to convince churches that we must be involved in helping to combat the scourge of AIDS in Africa. We can offer something no one else can as we show the love of Christ in action."
"I may have been late in seeing this need," he said, "but now that I have . . . I feel committed to working as hard as I can."