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Stars of the Right Turn Out for ‘Senator No’

If Ronald Reagan is widely viewed as the savior of the modern-day Republican Party, then former Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.) is its John the Baptist, the man who prepared the way for the GOP’s political messiah.

Or so appeared to be the sentiment earlier this week at a belated tribute dinner for Helms, who retired from Congress in 2003.

Tuesday night a seemingly endless stream of conservative luminaries — from Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) to Jerry Falwell — paraded across the dais in Arlington’s Crystal Gateway Marriott ballroom, and deemed a man once dubbed “Senator No” in league with no less a figure than Reagan when it came to shaping the conservative movement.

“I’ve had two heroes in my life: Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan,” gushed Falwell, founder and chancellor of Liberty University, which is home to the Helms School of Government. In fact, Falwell continued, it was people like Helms who “prevented the country from going to hell in a handbasket.”

“God did send us a real man in Jesse Helms,” posited Eagle Forum Education and Legal Defense Fund President Phyllis Schlafly, who called Helms an answer to a prayer.

Helms, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972 and served longer in that chamber than any other North Carolinian, was one of the few GOP Senators to endorse Reagan over President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican presidential primary — a move seen as crucial to extending Reagan’s run that year and raising his profile.

And everybody present seemed pretty darn grateful for that, and just about everything else he had done in his career.

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre even brought Helms a fitting token of his appreciation: a Remington New Model Army .44 caliber revolver.

A videotaped message from President Bush praised Helms for protecting the “men and women in uniform” from the International Criminal Court and for his support for regime change in Iraq.

Prior to the dinner, a bevy of former aides, friends and well-wishers mingled over cocktails.

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist was there with his blushing bride, Samah, in tow.

Did he have any memories of the good Senator?

“We used to go drinking at girlie bars, carousing late at night,” deadpanned Norquist, whose jape earned him a playful push from his wife.

But seriously, Norquist added, Helms is a “hero for the movement” who “helped legalize private ownership of gold.

“Someday I hope to be able to buy some,” he continued, before strolling off.

Helms’ former chief of staff Jimmy Broughton remembered his old boss as a stickler for grammar who “didn’t like split infinitives,” as a thrifty money manager who once sent back a sheet of Senate letterhead with a note commanding “order no more” on account of its expense, and as a good neighbor, who would postpone important Senate business to call a colleague and let him know he had a flat tire.

Helms’ high-profile battles with the Clinton administration over diplomatic appointees, his efforts to reform the United Nations and his relentless opposition to communism were invoked both on and off the dais.

“El Salvador wouldn’t be a democracy today without the strong input of Jesse Helms,” opined former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who said he was grateful for all the help Helms had provided him as “a young struggling House Member.”

And then there was Helms’ legendary affection for children — he famously met with more than 100,000 youngsters during his tenure in the Senate. In what was a sure-fire applause line, American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene told the audience that Helms had even kept former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Gali waiting while playing with Keene’s granddaughter.

There were plenty of grass-roots activists in attendance, too.

Among these was Donald Ely, a retired high school teacher and Pennsylvania Republican State Committeeman, who sat penning a note of tribute (letterhead had been helpfully left at each table for this purpose) to Helms. Ely, a die-hard conservative, had been a loyal supporter from the first. “I always gave him more than I could afford,” Ely said of his contributions to Helms’ campaigns.

While the gathering of 500-some supporters, who plunked down $150 per ticket, was pretty much a sea of white, the handful of black attendees didn’t seem to have a problem with Helms’ long record of criticizing the civil rights movement and voting against civil rights legislation.

“He was one of my standouts,” said Bertie Bowman, the veteran hearings coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is black. “Sen. Helms had his agenda and I had my agenda but regardless of civil rights he really treated me well. … He took me in like one of the family.”

Another group short in supply Tuesday evening were Democrats. “I don’t think you’ll see a lot,” conceded Livingston, glancing around the crowded hotel ballroom in a futile attempt to spot a member of the opposition.

There was a bittersweet air to the night — a sense that this would be among the last big, public moments for the 83-year-old former Senator, who has experienced a string of health problems in recent years. (Helms, who frequently threw back his head and howled during the program, did not speak at the event — his wife Dot recently told the Raleigh News and Observer he is no longer granting live interviews or giving speeches due to memory problems. Helms, who released his memoirs last month, stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem only with assistance.

“People do realize he’s going up in years,” said Livingston, quickly adding, “no one wants to say it’s the last time you’ll see him.”

After 10 p.m., with the speeches still coming on strong — Free Congress Research & Education Foundation Chairman and CEO Paul Weyrich took to the mic and aptly dubbed the dinner “an endurance contest” — a group of eight students from the conservative Patrick Henry College who had volunteered at the event headed to the nearby Crystal City Metro stop.

The youthful bunch didn’t have any memories of Helms — the closest link anyone could point to was a former R.A. who had worked for the event’s organizer.

“I hope in the golden age of our retirement” to be remembered that way, said a serious-looking public policy freshman, Matt Lukowiak, who sported spectacles and a suit and said he “could see [himself] doing lobbying work someday.”

Meanwhile, his fellow freshman Jonathan Chebra had biology and Latin exams in the morning, but had come out anyway because “it’s important to support the Republican Party and its causes.

As for those exams: “We’ll see tomorrow when I get them,” he shrugged.

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