When Senator Jesse Helms was in his prime, one newspaperman described his crusades on the Senate floor as “stompin’ trompin’ ultra-right action.” Ultra-rightists of the Helmsian kidney were not offended, and most were despondent when the most reliable man on the right went into ideological hibernation during the Reagan-Bush years. Helms went after a few leftist nominees for ambassador and vainly tried to stop some of the shenanigans at the National Endowment for the Arts. But for the most part, not much was heard from him. He was tired, it was said, from his Sisyphean labors. Then Bill Clinton was elected.

Ever since, Helms has been back in the newspapers. Liberated from the bonds of loyalty to Republican Presidents, Helms has become quite the recidivist, opposing President Clinton and his congressional supporters on a variety of fronts. Two of his favorite issues arc foreign policy and federal funding for AIDS research.

On the foreign policy side. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Helms brought President Clinton to heel in July. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, “The senator has gotten [sic] the White House’s attention. President Clinton met quietly with Mr. Helms . . . after Senate Democrats blocked a vote on Mr. Helms’s cherished State Department reorganization plan. In retaliation, Mr. Helms vowed to shut down his committee, blocking all treaties, ambassadorial appointments and other business, until he got satisfaction.”

According to the Journal, Helms is turning moderate because he lunches with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. But Helms is interested in more than foreign policy. Only Helms had the effrontery to fight the refunding of the Ryan White bill on AIDS research. Funding it. Helms observed on the Senate floor in an unapologetic voice from the Old South, would subsidize deviancy. You don’t often hear members of the world’s greatest deliberative body use the word “pervert” on the Senate floor, but there it was. Officialdom was appalled.

The rejuvenation is easy to explain, former staff members say in offering two different explanations. Some believe Clinton brought Helms back to life. They say Clinton tried to “play hardball with the wrong person,” for as chairman. Helms is in a position to bring Clinton’s foreign policy to a halt. Moreover, a leftwing President is Helms’s perfect foil. Granted, Clinton’s positions on everything from most-favored-nation status for China (public enemy number one to Taiwan-supporter Helms) to American policy in Haiti are hardly distinguishable from his predecessor’s, but Clinton allows Helms to move to the President’s right in ways he could not between 1980 and 1992. Helms was always reluctant to oppose President Reagan and Bush because “you’re not going to go out of the way to question the leader of your own party,” the former staff member says. Although Helms opposed many of the Bush administration’s nominees for various posts, his “displeasure was not vocal. He considered George Bush a patriot and a fine man.”

Not so with the man Helms said was unfit to serve as Commander-in-Chief. “Helms was the only person I knew in this town who saw a silver lining” in the cloud of Clinton’s election, the source said. “I remember talking to him. [He said] Bill Clinton could deliver a conservative Congress. That is something that animated him.”

It has, but another source says the resurrection of Jesse Helms can be traced to the welcome departure of chief of staff Darryl Nirenberg, who ran the senator’s office for three years. This darker scenario paints Nirenberg as a moderating force who tried to protect and guide Helms and so alienated other staff members that more than a few of them quit. Moreover, Nirenberg was in charge when Helms purged the Foreign Relations Committee staff of its reactionary elements, led by Helms’s trusted aide, Jim Lucier, and replaced them with “foreign policy professionals.” “Every senior person left,” another former staff member says, “because Nirenberg didn’t leave.” With Nirenberg gone. Helms is back in action.

But the former explanation highlighting the election of Bill Clinton sounds like a more reasonable explanation, for Clinton also rejuvenated much of what is loosely defined as the conservative movement. It too suffered after Reagan’s victory in 1980, as money dried up with the perception that the good guys had finally won. Now, right-wing direct mail tycoons, especially the crooks, are rolling in the stuff that Republican dreams are made of.

Whatever the reason. Helms is back at the front, especially in the culture wars. Right-wingers have President Clinton to thank for giving them back the main congressional preacher of their old-time religion.