Politics & Government

Liddy Dole sparks debate on Jesse Helms' stance on AIDS

WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Jesse Helms might have had a personal evolution when it came to AIDS policy, but the journey wasn't far enough to keep activists from crying foul when his successor tried to name a global AIDS relief bill after him this week.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., introduced an amendment to add Helms, the North Carolina Republican who died July 4, to the title of a $50 billion bill considered Wednesday in the Senate, but her measure didn't get a vote. The legislation was already named after two other lawmakers who fought against the spread of AIDS, former Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif.

"Senator Helms played a critical role in moving the U.S. into a position where it's devoting substantial resources to provide aid to those in need in Africa," said Dole's spokesman, Wes Climer.

Helms changed his view on foreign relief programs late in his Senate career and teamed up with a popular rock star to help suffering populations overseas.

What the AIDS community won't soon forget are Helms comments like this one about disease victims in his own country: "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."

A spokesman for the Global AIDS Alliance said Dole's amendment was inappropriate.

"There are aspects of his legacy that are very negative when it comes to HIV prevention," David Bryden said.

"It is true that Helms, toward the very end of his career, started to show more compassion, particularly toward mothers and children affected by this disease," Bryden said. "But we’re still dealing with a legacy of Senator Helms when it comes to the HIV epidemic amongst injecting drug users."

Bryden said Helms fought against needle exchanges and other programs that AIDS activists say are proven ways to curb the spread of the contagious disease.

"We are still dealing with provisions in the law that came from Jesse Helms that really hamstring our efforts to reach that population," he said.

Dole’s amendment, quietly introduced Monday, was first reported Wednesday by the Huffington Post Web site and quickly spread on the blogosphere, where there was a proliferation of Helms quotes such as 1995 comments to the New York Times, which quoted him as saying people got AIDS due to "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."

"We've got to have some common sense about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts," Helms, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, told the Times.

Asked why it was appropriate to name the bill after Helms, Dole's office referred to a 2002 article in the San Francisco Chronicle that described how Helms changed his position on helping Africans with AIDS after befriending Bono, the iconic singer who has become virtually synonymous with the cause.

Helms was quoted as telling Christian activists, "I have been too lax too long in doing something really significant about AIDS."

(When Helms died earlier this month, Bono left a voicemail for John Dodd, director of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C., saying, "There are 2 million people alive in Africa today because Jesse Helms did the right thing.")

Still, in the same Chronicle article, Helms didn't soften his stance about fighting AIDS at home among people who acquired the infection through homosexual activity.

"I don’t have any idea on changing my views on that kind of activity, which is the primary cause of the doubling and redoubling of AIDS cases in the United States," Helms said.

Climer said Dole's amendment wasn't considered by the Senate because she introduced it too late — after a procedural move had already determined which changes could be considered.

The global AIDS bill, which included help for combating malaria and tuberculosis, passed 80-16.