Rob Christensen

On Jesse Helms and The Donald – in familiar territory

Miami-based Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, left, asks Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a question about his immigration proposal during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in Dubuque, Iowa. Ramos was later removed from the room.
Miami-based Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, left, asks Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a question about his immigration proposal during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015, in Dubuque, Iowa. Ramos was later removed from the room. AP

Shortly after Jorge Ramos, an anchor from Univision, was tossed the other day from a news conference held by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, a former political operative sent me a video reminding me that Trump was not the first candidate to see the heave-ho of a newsman.

Feuding with newsmen was also the bread and butter of the late Sen. Jesse Helms.

Among Helms’ most explosive exchanges came when Julian Harrison, a British-born freelance photographer, began aggressively quizzing Helms’ support of right-wing groups in El Salvador during a news conference in the 1984 Senate campaign.

Harrison, who had been wounded while covering the conflict in El Salvador, said that U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering had told him that Helms did not understand El Salvador and that the senator was supporting right-wing forces. Helms accused Harrison of being a plant for the Senate campaign of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

“You’re a liar,” Helms angrily repeated several times. “Somebody remove this jerk from the room.’’

Harrison retreated to the back of the room, but did not leave.

Helms and Trump share other similarities. Trump, like Helms, appeals to working class constituencies, is a master communicator and experienced television performer, and uses plain language to cut through the normal political niceties. Trump, like Helms, is OK tweaking the noses of the Republican establishment.

Both men also enraged Mexico.

Trump has angered many by describing Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and advocating the repeal of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that grants citizenship to those born in the United States. Trump also wants to build a wall along the border and to deport the 11 million or more immigrants that are in the U.S. illegally.

Helms’ relationship with Mexico was, if anything, worse than that of Trump’s.

As Helms’ biographer, William Link, writes, “of particular concern to Helms was Mexico, which he feared might engulf the United States with a flood of immigrants as a result of social and political disintegration.”

Helms first became interested in Mexico in 1984 while holding a series of hearings on drug smuggling. Helms held Senate committee hearings in 1986, when Mexico sought additional loans from the International Monetary Fund and tried to renegotiate its existing $97 billion in foreign debt.

Helms brought in witnesses who charged that official corruption and officially sanctioned drug smuggling were widespread in Mexico.

As a reaction to the Helms hearings, the Mexican government recalled its ambassador to the U.S and an anti-American demonstration of about 60,000 people occurred in Mexico City.

Helms, of course, did not back down, saying the publicity from the hearings had blocked a disastrous U.S. bailout.

The Raleigh Republican said Latin Americans were “a volatile people’’ and therefore he was “not surprised at the volatile reaction.’’ Helms later said he had been misquoted, but Hispanic leaders sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole denouncing Helms for his “callous, irresponsible and insensitive remarks’’ and calling for the Senate to censure him.

In Mexico, Helms became known as the leading American critic. One Mexican reporter called him “the most recognized person in the U.S. government besides the president.’’ A Mexican expert described Helms as the “icon of Mexico bashing.’’

After the election of a more conservative government in Mexico, Helms visited Mexico City in 2001. But significant differences remained.

It is probably fair to say that Trump has replaced Helms as “the icon of Mexico bashing.’’

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