Senator Often Makes Foes - And Occasionally Friends - Uncomfortable.
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sen. Jesse Helms, for two decades a combative conservative in the Senate, stirred a storm of controversy with his remark that President Clinton ″better have a bodyguard″ if he travels to North Carolina.
Clinton called Helm’s comment ″inappropriate″ and his chief of staff suggested Republican congressional leaders look elsewhere for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman.
Within 24 hours after making the comment, Helms issued a statement Tuesday declaring that with his words, he had ″made a mistake ... which I shall not repeat.″
The Republicans are expected to elect the 73-year-old North Carolinian as chairman of the committee for the upcoming Congress.
Helms made the bodyguard remark Monday in an interview with a Raleigh, N.C., newspaper. Helms, who served as a Navy recruiter during World War II, said the president was unpopular among military personnel, thousands of whom live in his state.
″Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard,″ Helms told The News & Observer.
The Secret Service, charged with protecting the president’s physical safety, said it had requested a transcript of the interview. A spokesman, however, said it would be an overstatement to say that Helms is under investigation.
The executive editor of The News & Observer, Frank Daniels III, said there is no tape recording of the interview Monday. Daniels said he had not received a request from federal officials for copies of the notes, but he said, ″If the request is made, we will consider it.″
Over his 22 years in the Senate, Helms had perfected the art of making political foes uncomfortable. But his bodyguard remark and an earlier statement questioning Clinton’s fitness to serve as commander in chief had even got some fellow Republican senators squirming.
Clinton called Helms’ remarks ″unwise and inappropriate.″
″That is a decision for them to make, not me,″ Clinton said when asked at a news conference about Helms and his elevation to the key foreign affairs seat in the Congress. ″The president oversees the foreign policy of the United States, and the Republicans will decide in whom they will repose their trust and confidence.″
White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta was more blunt. ″I think the Republican leadership needs to take a very hard look at whether or not they want somebody with these kind of extreme views to chair one of the most important committees in the Congress of the United States,″ Panetta told reporters.
Asked Tuesday if Helms was fit to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee - as he will in January - Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi replied: ″Sen. Helms has been an outstanding senator.″
The man who will lead the Republican majority in the new Senate trod gingerly. ″I didn’t see the entire statement,″ said Bob Dole. ″My view is that the president of the United States is welcome to come to any state.″
Dole also said, ″I think pretty much that Jesse must have said most of this probably in jest.″
He shook his head when asked if there had been pressure to remove Helms from his soon-to-be chairmanship, and Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate from Pennsylvania, said that just as Clinton is rightfully commander-in-chief, Helms is entitled by seniority to become chairman.
Helms said he had been speaking in an informal telephone interview, and had made an offhand remark ″in an attempt to emphasize how strongly the American people feel about the nation’s declining defense capability....″
″...Of course, I did not expect to be taken literally when, to emphasize the constant concerns I am hearing, I far too casually suggested that the president might need a bodyguard, or words to that effect,″ he said.
Democrats were less reserved about the man who for years has forced politically sensitive votes over issues such as public funding for sexually explicit art; public school prayer and race-based measures.
″I think they are extremely unfortunate... in very poor taste,″ said Sen. George Mitchell, retiring as Senate majority leader. Helms’ remarks are ″really the kind of reckless comments people in public office should not make,″ he added.
In nearly a quarter-century in the Senate, Helms has been a perpetual critic of foreign policy as conducted by both Republicans and Democrats. He has clashed with secretaries of states, used a senator’s prerogative to hold up numerous diplomatic appointments and once referred to ″the yo-yos in the State Department.″
Last year, debating liberal Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy about permitting AIDS victims to settle permanently in the United States, he said: ″Let me adjust my hearing aid. It could not accommodate the decibels of the senator from Massachusetts. I can’t match him in decibels or Jezebels, or anything else apparently.″
A former sportswriter and radio journalist, Helms is in the fourth term of a Senate career devoted to combatting communism overseas and liberalism at home with equal fervor, as well as protecting tobacco, textiles and other interests vital to his home state.
Since his most recent election in 1990, he has undergone treatment for Paget’s Disease, a calcium buildup that made walking uncomfortable at times. He also had been treated for prostate cancer and undergone heart surgery - an event that prompted him to give up the unfiltered Camel cigarettes he occasionally smoked.
Although he has said he might seek a new term, his decision to claim the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, rather than the panel on agriculture, with a more direct influence over the economy of his state, has sparked speculation that he may retire at the end of next year.
Ironically, he also conceded he ″should have said it better″ on Friday when he first stirred controversy over Clinton. In an interview for CNN’s Evans and Novak program, he had been asked whether he thinks Clinton is ″up to the job″ of commander in chief. ″No I do not. And neither do people in the armed forces,″ he replied.
In Raleigh, the executive editor of The News & Observer, Frank Daniels III, issued a statement saying its story ″accurately sets out Sen. Helms’ position about President Clinton’s fitness to be commander-in-chief. We stand by the story.″
Daniels said if the Secret Service requests a transcript of the interview, ″we will consider it.″