Monday, October 01, 2007

Joe, Jesse and 'Stromboli'

Democratic Sen. Joe Biden had just wrapped up a campaign appearance in Rock Hill Monday when he walked over to introduce himself. When I told him I worked for the Observer, his smile turned serious.

"How's Jesse?" he asked.

You might not think Biden, a moderate-liberal Democrat, would have much in common with the conservative Helms. But over a 30-year Senate career, he counted not only Helms but Sen. Strom Thurmond among his good friends. And not just in the bloviated Congressional sense.

Speaking at York County Democratic headquarters, Biden spoke warmly about his friendship with former Sen. Fritz Hollings and said he "learned an awful lot from that other fellow, 'Stromboli'."

So close were Biden and Thurmond -- a one-time segregationist -- that Thurmond's family asked him to give a eulogy at the senator's 2003 funeral.
In it, Biden said Thurmond, "saw his beloved South Carolina, and the people of South Carolina, changing ... And he knew the time had come to change himself."

Biden's first impression of Helms was not a good one. Shortly after they both were elected in 1972, he listened to Helms deliver a speech with which he disagreed completely. Soon he found himself fulminating about Helms to Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana.

"'What would you say if I told you Dot (Helms) and Jesse adopted a young man?'" Biden recalled Mansfield saying. The senator went on to explain how the Helmses had adopted a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy.

"He said, 'You know Joe, if I can give you a piece of advice.' He said, ‘It's always appropriate to question a man or woman's judgment.' But he said, "You shouldn't question their motives. Everyone who comes here comes here because people in their state found something about them they felt was redeeming. Your job is to find out what that characteristic is.'

"It was profound and it literally changed my whole attitude. If you go back and check my 34 years, you have never ever heard me once question the motive of any senator. Jesse and I were bitter political enemies but personal friends.... It taught me hell of a lesson."

(Helms, by the way, suffers from a form of dementia and lives in an assisted living facility in Raleigh. John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center, said Helms is "doing OK." He turns 86 this month.)


Biden may not be the rock star in the Democratic field, but he was greeted like one Monday by a group of 8th graders from Charlotte's Alexander Graham Middle School.

The group went to see Biden for a class project on the election. They greeted his arrival with shouts and he dived into their group for handshakes and pictures.

"Just remember one very important thing," he told them. "No dating 'til you're 30."


David McKnight said...

[October 1--President Carter's Birthday]


You can tell Sen. Biden that Sen. Helms is doing just fine at the retirement center in Raleigh where he now resides.

A music group I belong to goes over to that retirement home several times a year to play a variety of music programs for the residents, and Sen. Helms is always there for the concerts, often leading the group in clapping to the toe-tappers and enjoying the other songs ranging from folk and country music to jazz and patriotic songs.

Having myself tried in 1978 to duplicate Sen. Joe Biden's 1972 achievement of winning election to the Senate at the minimum eligible age, I was one of eight Democratic hopefuls competing to challenge Sen. Jesse Helms in that '78 campaign when he was up for re-election the first time following his first election win in 1972.

What an awesome task it would have been to try to match wits with the senator if I had won that primary, for his outspoken political style and views on the issues had motivated me to leave a good editorial writing job in Fayetteville to try to go toe-to-toe with the former television editorialist from Monroe and Raleigh.

So when I began playing violin and piano for music programs at his retirement home in Raleigh, I thought: the good Lord sure brings us together in interesting ways. Instead of having to debate Latin American foreign policy in a political campaign 30 years ago, I am now playing "It's a Grand Old Flag" and other favorites for Sen. Helms and all his friends.

And make no mistake--he doesn't miss a beat. He knows if the musicians are up on their chops. And he is unfailingly polite, courteous and friendly both to our musicians and to his fellow residents, not wishing at all to be accorded the treatment of a celebrity or a VIP.

He has inspired his friends and confounded his foes through the years, but he is a truly principled and compassionate Southern gentleman who may have left the political battlefields of the past but who enjoys greeting friends and visitors with a ready grin and a cheerful comment.

When I told Sen. Helms after one program that my father could play jazz piano a lot better than I could, he even offered some words of advice for sharpening up my keyboard work:

"Practice, practice, practice."

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