Published on Wednesday, April 11, 2001 in the Raleigh News & Observer
My Pen Pal Jesse Helms' Unexpected Green Streak
by Hart Matthews
DURHAM, NC -- The senior U.S. senator for the great state of North Carolina, Jesse Helms, is the only politician in my long history of corresponding with politicians to waste no time with persuasive rhetoric
Over many years of trading opinions with the senator, his responses have always been blustery and resolute, as if I had not disagreed with him but had made a donation to his campaign, as if what I needed most was to be reassured that he was keeping to the thorny path. His missives have never explained his positions, acknowledged mine or even hinted at remotely ambiguous feelings.
Until just recently, that is. When I got to the end of this astonishing letter, I swear you could have run a semi through my open mouth:
"I will do all that I can to see that any exploration program addresses environmental concerns and presents research and development efforts to find new exploration technology that will protect the environment even more."
Granted, Senator Helms disagreed with me about drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he actually paused to point out that the caribou population has tripled since exploration began at Prudhoe Bay, the site of the last big battle over Alaskan oil. He also explained (!) that the proposed drilling area would cover only 0.8 percent of the refuge.
To give you an idea what a break this is from the usual tone of our correspondence, here's how he answered my letter opposing John Ashcroft for attorney general:
"The political attacks on John Ashcroft were a contrived hoax, an obvious smokescreen for a no-holds-barred assault on conservatives in general, and on Christian conservatives in particular."
He went on to call me and my kind ill-tempered, dishonest and mean-spirited. All because I didn't want a white-power fundamentalist enforcing the laws of the land.
But get this: "Like you, I want to protect wildlife in this beautiful area of our country. I have studied this matter carefully. I have reviewed several reports, all of which conclude that oil exploration in ANWR would have little effect on the environment."
Well, tie me up with pig gut and douse me in gasoline! I didn't think the senator studied anything but the life and times of the late John C. Calhoun.
Personally, I still believe oil companies should "explore" their own land rather than wilderness belonging to the American people. The refuge is expected by some estimates to yield only six months of our national consumption of petroleum, and not until 2015, so that particular oil, if they find any, probably won't ease the current energy shortage.
I can also turn around that 0.8 percent argument. The whole of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comprises 2.2 percent of a state more than five times the size of California. OK, half of Alaska is federally owned, but that still leaves two and a half Californias for the petroheads.
Besides, much of that federal land (and offshore water) was quietly opened to drilling in the last eight years by the Environmental President and his giggling interior secretary.
So while I still disagree with Helms on this issue, at least he's made me feel like there's a human intelligence on the other end of the debate, an intelligence honestly perplexed over the conflict between our rising energy use and the need to protect wild places.
However, I don't want to impugn the good senator's integrity -- something I've been recently accused of doing to John Ashcroft. Until I have further evidence, I'll pretend this letter came from the pen of an untrained new staffer and refrain from accusing Senator Helms of taking a stand somewhere to the center of reactionary.
Hart Matthews is a Durham writer.
© Copyright 2001 The News & Observer