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Helms’ new memoir: what we can learn

by DG Martin

Almost 30 years ago I was eating breakfast in a Charlotte hotel with a group of lawyers, all Democrats.

One of our breakfast group suddenly whispered that Sen. Jesse Helms had entered the dining room. I tried to look up to get a glance, without gawking. But the senator was walking directly towards our table. We stood. He shook our hands and told us that he thought he was supposed to join us for breakfast.

He was mistaken, of course, and I never learned how he wound up at our table. It was a funny situation. I suppose none of us knew how to say, ‘“This is the last group you would want to eat with’” without seeming totally rude.

So he sat down at our table. The conversation was strained. We tried weather and sports. It was awkward for everybody, but Helms was too polite to leave without finishing breakfast with us.

I finally confessed that I was ‘“on the other side’” politically. But, I said, my son, who was then 8 or 9 years old, had told me that he agreed with Sen. Helms that we should not give up the Panama Canal.

As the breakfast broke up, Helms gave me his card on which he had written a short message to my son, thanking him for his support and promising to work to keep the canal.

I acknowledge that I admire that ability to find personal connections even with political enemies, as he did that day with me at breakfast.

When I learned that Sen. Helms had written a memoir, Here’s Where I Stand, I determined to read it to see what I could learn from him about how to win political contests.

Others can review and criticize Here’s Where I Stand for some of its unbelievable claims, such as its assertion that Helms never supported segregation.

I will leave for another time a discussion of Helms’ description of his ‘“conversion’” that led to his support for large amounts of American dollars to support the war against AIDS in Africa, except to share Helm’s own explanation:

‘“I may have been late in seeing this need, but now that I have seen it, I feel committed to working as hard as I can to bring as many resources as possible to the resolution of the problem.’”’ 

What can Helms’ political opponents learn from his book?

Here are a few things.

1. Throw away the speeches that are full of facts.

Instead, do what Helms says he did in Asheville at the first big speech in his first senate campaign: Reach for the heart.

‘“Suddenly it came to me. Do not talk to those people in Asheville about economics and give them a lot of facts and statistics. Talk from the heart. Tell them that we need for America to have a spiritual rebirth.’”

Listen to one of John Edwards’ ‘“Two Americas’” speeches and you might think he’s read Helms’ playbook.

2. Know the difference between principles and preferences.

‘“’…. [T]o be successful in politics and remain true to your principles is to know the distinction between your principles and your preferences. On your principles, you should never yield; you should be prepared to be defeated. Nobody likes to be defeated, but you should let everybody know in the most articulate and thoughtful and civil way you can’… than in certain matters that you define as matters of principle you will not budge, you cannot yield, you will not compromise.’”

3. Learn the rules.

‘“I knew the value of amendments and how to keep things from being caught up in committees. I knew when and how to make the call for a voice vote so Senators would have to attach their name to the issues they supported or chose not to support. I knew how to introduce substitute bills and how to recruit cosigners.’”

4. Know the value of helping your constituents.

‘“Whatever these folks in my office did, they did with skill and courtesy. In the process they developed a reputation as people who cared. They were, therefore, one of the best staffs in the Capitol for constituent services’”

I am going to share these lessons with some of my favorite Democratic politicians, including one who received that special Panama Canal message from Helms so many years ago.

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