My colleague Tim Graham brought to my attention earlier today that WashingtonPost.com's front page today teased two opinion pieces on the late Sen. Jesse Helms. The first was by a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who lauded the late North Carolina Republican as a champion of liberty and staunch opponent of Communist repression. The second was a rehashed column from seven years ago accusing Helms of being an "unabashed racist."
David Broder's "RePost" of his August 29, 2001 column -- "Jesse Helms, White Racist" -- was nowhere to be found in the dead tree edition of the July 7 Washington Post, but it was included online as a counterweight to Marc Thiessen's "The Jesse Helms You Should Remember."
What readers would find in Thiessen's piece was one heartwarming account of how the fiercely anti-Communist senator stood up against his good friend and the leader of his party, President Ronald Reagan, in an attempt to save one Soviet sailor from returning to the USSR against his will (emphasis mine):
What made Helms stand out was his willingness to stand up for his beliefs before they were widely held -- even if it meant challenging those closest to him. In 1985, his dear friend Ronald Reagan was preparing for his first summit with Mikhail Gorbachev when a Ukrainian sailor named Miroslav Medvid twice jumped off a Soviet ship into the Mississippi River seeking political asylum. The Soviets insisted that Medvid had accidentally fallen off -- twice. The State Department did not want an international incident on the eve of the summit. But Helms believed it was wrong to send a man back behind the Iron Curtain -- no matter the cost to superpower diplomacy. He tried to block the ship's departure by requiring the sailor to appear before the Senate Agriculture Committee, which he chaired then -- and he had the subpoena delivered to the ship's unwitting captain in a carton of North Carolina cigarettes.
Despite Helms's efforts, the ship was allowed to leave for the Soviet Union with the Ukrainian sailor aboard. Miroslav Medvid was not heard from again until 15 years later, when he came to Washington to visit the man who fought so hard for his freedom. I was working at the time on Helms's Foreign Relations Committee staff and witnessed this emotional meeting. Yes, Medvid told Helms, he had been trying to escape -- that was why he joined the Merchant Marine in the first place. When he was returned to the Soviet Union, he said, he was incarcerated in a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The KGB tried to drug him, but a sympathetic nurse injected the drugs into his mattress. Eventually he was released; today he is a parish priest in his native village in Ukraine.
In the course of dozens of interrogations, he told Helms, "the KGB didn't fulfill its desire about what they wanted to do with me. They were afraid of something," he said, "and now I know what they were afraid of." They were afraid of Jesse Helms.