Jesse's World

It used to be instructive to watch Sen. Jesse Helms smoke a cigarette. For years he puffed on the ultimate coffin nails, unfiltered Lucky Strikes. But (like Bill Clinton with marijuana) he didn't inhale. He just blew the smoke out of his mouth. Helms's smoking was a metaphor for his political style, which appeared more menacing than it actually was.

Helms gave up smoking a few years ago, but he is still striking poses. Asked on CNN two weeks ago whether he thought President Clinton was a capable commander in chief, he replied, ""No, I do not. And neither do the people in the armed forces.'' Three days later, Helms puffed a little harder. On a visit to North Carolina, he told the Raleigh News & Observer, ""Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here. He'd better have a bodyguard.''

The indignation was nearly universal. Last week Democrats demanded that Helms be denied the post of chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republican leader Bob Dole had to re-mind Helms to watch what he said (just kidding, Helms replied, though he promised not to do it again). At the United Nations, Sodom and Gomorrah in Helmsian demonology, diplomats compared the senator from North Carolina to Le Pen of France and Zhirinovsky of Russia -- a dangerous isolationist ultranationalist.

If Newt Gingrich is prime minister in the Republicans' new government-by-Congress, does that make Helms secretary of state? Will he disrespect the president, cut off foreign aid, frighten America's allies? Maybe. But more likely, he will continue to posture without much effect.

Once the favorite bogeyman of the establishment press, Helms had been mostly ignored for the past few years. It wasn't that he had toned down his rhetoric. In speeches in committee and on the Senate floor, he vitriolically lampooned Clinton's advisers. He suggested that Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders were ""condom queens'' and described a gay activist who had been nominated for a top administration housing job as ""not your garden-variety lesbian . . . she's a militant-activist-mean lesbian.'' His favorite target was Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who represents the Eastern establishment that Helms despises. Helms insinuated, outrageously, that Talbott was in cahoots with the KGB.

Helms could talk, but he couldn't ac-complish much. Earlier this year he couldn't even stop the nomination of Talbott's brother-in-law, Derek Shearer, as ambassador to Finland. The GOP sweep on Nov. 8 alters the equation. In theory at least, Helms now has the power to bend American foreign policy to his will.

Many of the Republicans who control Congress agree with Helms that foreign aid is a ""rathole.'' They may try to limit the administration's options by cutting the money Clinton has to spend abroad. Clinton has preferred to act through the United Nations; the administration's U.N. ambassador, Madeleine Albright, has been a powerful voice at the White House. The United States now contributes soldiers to most of the 15 U.N. peacekeeping operations, ranging from a few dozen troops in the western Sahara to as many as 20,000 in Haiti. Helms will surely try to cut America's annual $1.3 billion contribution to the United Nations, $986 million of which goes for peacekeeping. Another prime target is the $3 billion Congress spends each year on inter-national development funds, mostly in Africa, for which Helms shows the same regard he does for unmarried mothers on welfare.

In his chairman's role, Helms will have the power to block the administration's foreign-policy appointments. He has already informally nixed defeated House Speaker Thomas Foley as ambassador to China. Administration insiders laugh that Helms is employment insurance for Warren Christopher, since no new nominee for secretary of state could survive confirmation hearings before Helms -- certainly not Strobe Talbott, the name most often mentioned as Christopher's successor.

But it would be a mistake to overstate Helms's clout. At 73, he has slowed a little. He has had operations for prostate problems and an abdominal hernia, and two years ago he had quadruple bypass surgery. He no longer has a rabid staff to push the conservative agenda. During the 1980s, Helms's aides would resort to any tactic -- leaking highly classified secrets about U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals to undermine arms control, even cooperating with liberal Democrats to stop the nomination of Sen. John Tower as defense secretary in 1989. But in 1992 Helms purged his staff, which had gotten increasingly out of control. At one point, the staff had sent out a query under Helms's name demanding that Russian President Boris Yeltsin reveal the location of a concentration camp holding the survivors of the 1983 shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007. Current Helms aides refer to this inquiry as the ""Search for Elvis.''

Helms's new staff director, Adm. James (Bud) Nance, appeals to Helms's Southern courtliness, which has always balanced the senator's mean streak. Nance and Helms have fairly cordial relations with Secretary Christopher, who knows how to patiently listen to Helms, and also how to buy him off.

Helms has certain pet issues. One is Nicaragua. He is obsessed with the fact that the United States has given $1 billion to Nicaragua since 1991 without forcing Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro to return American property expropriated by the Marxist Sandinistas during the 1980s. Helms also held up U.S. aid to India to win the freedom of a handful of political prisoners (a Kashmiri separatist movement is represented by a lobbying firm run by Charles Black, an old Helms political ally). And he wants the U.S. Treasury to unfreeze Iraqi assets seized in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm (a former Helms aide represents two tobacco companies who lost money on contracts with Baghdad). If the administration wants to placate Helms, it will move quickly on these issues.

If the administration cannot placate Helms, it may be able to outflank him. Three senior Republicans on Foreign Relations are moderates: Richard Lugar of Indiana, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, James Jeffords of Vermont. They are likely to vote with the Democrats to block Helms's more radical schemes. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole is also counting on this coterie to restrain Helms. Dole will not try to block Helms's ascension as foreign-relations chairman, but he doesn't want him to make too much of a commotion.

Political aides at the White House are hoping that Helms makes as much noise as possible, as long as he doesn't derail Clinton's foreign policy. The Democrats want the GOP to seem intemperate. Last week Clinton was initially angry when he heard Helms's remark that the president wouldn't be safe in North Carolina. ""I'm ready to go to North Carolina right now,'' Clinton declared to White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. But Clinton's advisers knew the president would be better off if he just let Helms keep on talking.

""The single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.''

-- describing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

-- in a 1964 editorial calling homosexuals a security risk

-- during his 1990 re-election campaign against black challenger Harvey Gantt

-- during a 1991 debate on National Endowment for the Arts funding for material he considered offensive

-- debating Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1993 on whether foreigners with AIDS should be allowed U.S. residency

-- referring to black Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, who opposed renewing the Confederate flag patent in 1993

-- during last year's Senate debate on whether to send U.S. forces to Haiti