Where is the mecca of American foreign policy? It's not in Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood, where the gray monolith of the State Department gazes out onto the Potomac, or in the trendy salons of Georgetown or the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. No, to get to mecca, you have to drive east on U.S. 74 to the village of Wingate, N.C. There you will find mecca on the right side of the road, just across from a Hardee's. It's the Jesse Helms Center, set up nine years ago as a shrine for the North Carolina Senator in an old white neoclassical home with a wide portico and fluted columns. Inside, Helms has a replica of his Washington Senate office. On walls hang hundreds of photos of him pumping hands with Presidents and foreign leaders. There's also a framed copy of his floor speech during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial and a letter from Spiro Agnew: Thanks for being "a truly wonderful friend."
Everybody who's anybody in U.S. foreign policy has made the pilgrimage to mecca: Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Hugh Shelton. Madeleine Albright packed the hall at nearby Wingate University, where Helms studied for a year, for a speech (during which she gave the Senator a T shirt emblazoned with SOMEBODY AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT LOVES ME). Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan delivered a commencement address at Wingate with a beaming Helms sitting in the front row waving a fan against the broiling sun.
Annan and the others were paying homage. Helms, now 78, has been tormenting American Presidents and their diplomats for 28 years, mostly from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has voted against so many bills--from food stamps to the Martin Luther King holiday to practically every arms-control treaty--that critics nicknamed him "Senator No," a moniker he cherishes. He has blocked so many nominees that he can't remember all their names. (Robert Pastor was startled when he testified before Helms four years after the Senator had bottled up his nomination in 1994 to be ambassador to Panama: "He didn't seem to know who I was.")
And now the Clinton Administration finds its chances for a serious foreign policy legacy--on everything from arms control to the Middle East--under Helms' gavel. When he's in the mood, he seems happy to hand the Administration a big win, as he did with NATO expansion last spring. But most of the time he enjoys outfoxing the White House, as he did last year when he got the Senate to reject the nuclear test-ban treaty. At the end of next week, when Clinton flies to Moscow for his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he will be looking over his shoulder at the North Carolinian. Helms, worried that Clinton might agree to Russian demands that the U.S. curb its missile-defense program, has already told the President not to bring back an arms deal, particularly one that keeps the Antiballistic Missile Treaty alive. He will kill it in his committee. "I just wanted to stop that before it grew feathers," the folksy Helms said in a lengthy interview with TIME.