Ted Cruz: You, Sir, Are No Jesse Helms

Texas senator praises the grand obstructionist and bigot

Sen. Ted Cruz, covering himself in the political legacy of Dixie-singer and Apartheid-backer Jesse Helms
Sen. Ted Cruz, covering himself in the political legacy of Dixie-singer and Apartheid-backer Jesse Helms

Quick note to Sen. Ted Cruz: If you're trying to stake a claim to moral authority, namechecking Jesse Helms – arguably one of the US Senate's most racially-divisive figures – may not help your case.

A press release from Cruz's office has become a daily (sometimes moreso) event, and most get a cursory skim read at best. Yesterday's missive almost caused a spit take. Turns out Cruz was speaking at the Heritage Foundation Fourth Annual Jesse Helms Lecture Series. Yes, the Heritage Foundation, breeding ground for every Evangelical Fundamentalist-meets-anti-regulation instinct the GOP has. But Helms is a step further. When Texas' junior senator praises one of the worst segregationists in the history of post-reconstruction US Senate, that might cause one to blanch a little bit.

The meat of the speech was supposed to be about President Obama and Syria. Cruz has had to walk a narrow tight rope: After all, backing all international military action is virtually an obligation for the modern GOP, but so is opposing everything the Obama administration does. So Cruz said he was mad that the administration had proposed that air strikes would come as a result of President Assad's failure to comply to an "international norm." That norm being, don't use chemical weapons against your own population.

That argument was not enough for Cruz, who opposes any strike that doesn't benefit the US directly. He also opposed the logic presented by Obama as too fuzzy, arguing instead that "we should speak with moral clarity."

The same moral clarity that Helms showed, presumably.

For those of you fortunately young enough not to remember, Helms was the long term US Senator for North Carolina, and exactly the walking, blathering cliche of Southern segregationism one would expect. Helms notoriously once ranted that "a lot of human beings have been born bums," and regularly ranted about "Negro hoodlums." It wasn't just his rhetoric that reeked of the Old South: He famously sang "Dixie" while standing near Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American female senator, and was against renewing the Voting Rights Act in 1982. He also opposed sanctions against the whites-only South African regime under apartheid. Plus, he hated gay people, so just a winning personality all around. (Rather than recount everything here, read Eric Bates's excellent 1995 account of his political bigotry for Mother Jones and Eric Ose's excellent excoriation of his career for Huffington Post.)

Apparently all that had bypassed Cruz. "The very first political contribution I made was to Jesse Helms," he warbled to the Heritage crew. OK, so we all made youthful mistakes, but Cruz relayed this as a point of pride. After all, none other than John Wayne had also sent cash to Helms. According to Cruz, Helms told him he actually called the Duke to confirm that, yes, it was the movie star's name on the dotted line. Cruz told the Heritage Foundation, "Apparently Wayne said, 'Oh yeah, you’re that guy saying all those crazy things. We need 100 more like you.'”

"It's every bit as true now as it was then," said Cruz, but surprisingly he wasn't talking about the crazy part. "We need 100 more like Jesse Helms."

Not that Cruz necessarily understood Helms' positions on everything. Like, say, Israel. When Cruz said, "In my view the United States of America should remain unshakably alongside our vital ally the nation of Israel," he probably forgot that Helms did little to nothing to back Israel for most of his early political career. In 1973, he proposed a resolution demanding that Israel remove its troops from the West Bank and give it back to Jordan, and later In fact, he only became profoundly pro-Israeli in 1984 after he almost lost his seat to North Carolina Governor James Hunt. The Democrat had recieved major support from Jewish groups. After the election, Helms became the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's best friend, but it was arguably his slow roll that meant it took him until 1991 to become chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To this day, Helms remains a controversial figure among American isolationists and Israeli policy makers, some of whom write him off as an opportunist rather than a patriot or compatriot.

But there's a more worrying undertone to Cruz's comments, and a more worrying precedent: One that harkens back to the isolationists of the 1930s.

While calling Assad "a brutal tyrant [and] a monster," he said, "It is not the job of the men and women of our military to send statements about international norms. It is the job of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to stand up and defend the United States of America, to kill our enemies, and to defend our national interests."

Cue the sound of just about every political perspective drilling Swiss Cheese-level holes in Cruz's grandstanding.

For the pro-Israeli lobby, an unstable Syria is a nightmare. Even Helms would probably have tut-tutted heavily, as he once said that, unlike his general anti-foreign aid stance, Israel should get part of the US defense budget (his logic? Its existence saved the US stationing an aircraft carrier in the region.)

For hawks, not going to war is just a bad plan generally, and they have driven decades of American foreign policy.

And for those that believe American should remain an active participant in international affairs and defender of basic human rights, there's real concern here.

Post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan, a lot of the wind has been taken out of the sails of American military triumphalism. And no-one in their right mind suggests that the US can keep trying to wipe everyone's noses and deal with every bug bear and boogeyman. But there will always be a tug on the heartstrings of even the most anti-interventionist liberal when they fear a state is using chemical weapons on their own people. Similarly, as much as the far right has tried to paint the UN as ravenous population-controlling rapists, there's still support for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. Moreover, there was no existential threat to the US when it entered World War One, and FDR could have restricted American involvement in World War Two solely to the Pacific theater. America has a long history of engaging its forces to re-enforce international norms.

Whichever side of the debate anyone stands on the use of force against Syria, to say that America will never again stand for humanitarian principals unless it directly affects US sovereign interests seems a radical stance that many would reject.

Including Helms. It's probably grinding Cruz's gears that there's already a strong effort to distance him from Helms … coming from the North Carolina recidivist's supporters. Long time Helm staffer Danielle Pletka told the Washington Post that "Helms was no isolationist." Quite the reverse: He supported NATO expansion, arming the Contras and the Bosnians, and if he was alive today "I would like to think that he would have pushed the President to help the Syrians fight for themselves when this battle began almost two years ago."

So, according to those that knew him, if there were 100 more Jesse Helmses, then the Obama administration would have an even easier time getting the votes to start air strikes against Assad.

Or maybe we're all just overthinking it. Helms was notorious as the great "no" vote of the Senate, an obstructionist par excellence and a glory hog when it came to camera time. And really, considering the theme tune for Senator "Defund ObamaCare" is "Whatever it is, I'm Against it", is Ted Cruz all that different?

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Ted Cruz, Heritage Foundation, President Obama, Syria, Jesse Helms, Racism, Israel

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