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Jesse Helms

Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr. (October 18, 1921 – July 4, 2008) was a five-term Republican United States Senator from North Carolina who served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001. He was perhaps the last unreconstructed Southern conservative who started out in the Democratic Party when they symbolized racial conservatism and transitioned in the early 1970s to being a Republican.

Helms was a major influence on social conservatism; credited with intervening to rescue Ronald Reagan's political career and also praised for his ability to connect complicated ideas on a level that spoke to ordinary people. Helms' influence can also be seen in how political campaigns have developed, "his mastery of new media techniques and technology convinced many liberals they had to invest in the Internet and build up the passions of their base."

Helms was the longest-serving popularly-elected senator in North Carolina history and was widely credited with shifting the one-party state dominated by the Democratic Party into a competitive two-party state that usually votes Republican in presidential elections. The Helms-controlled National Congressional Club's state-of-the-art direct mail operation raised millions for Helms and other conservative candidates allowing Helms to aim "for the jugular" in his campaigns.

Helms was an outspoken conservative who opposed many progressive policies regarding race such as school integration, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Helms also reminded voters that he tried, with a 16-day filibuster, to stop the Senate from approving a national holiday to honor black civil-rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Helms was also a "master obstructionist" and self-described "redneck" who relished his nickname, “Senator No”. He opposed, at various times, civil rights, gay rights, affirmative action, tax increases, abortion, foreign aid, communism, and government support for modern art with nudity. Helms brought "an aggressiveness" to his conservatism, like his rhetoric against homosexuality, and employed racially charged language in his campaigns and editorials. He combined this with cultural, social and economic conservatism which often helped his legislation win overwhelming support. He was an icon of conservatism in the United States respected for his steadfastness of convictions; he "never apologized" for his past views on most of these issues, with the exception of the AIDS pandemic.

Family and education

Helms was born in Monroe, North Carolina, where his father, called "Big Jesse", served as both chief of police and fire chief. His mother, Ethel Mae Helms, was a housewife.

Helms briefly attended Wingate Junior College, now Wingate University, which is near Monroe before leaving for Wake Forest College He quit after a year to begin a career as a journalist, working for the next 11 years as a newspaper and radio reporter; first as a sportswriter and news reporter for The News & Observer and also as assistant city editor and city editor for The Raleigh Times. Helms met Dorothy "Dot" Coble, editor of the society page, at the The News & Observer and they married in 1942. Helms first interest in politics came from conversations with his father-in-law, a political conservative.

Jesse and Dot had three children: Jane, Nancy of Raleigh, and Charles Helms of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Charles, their third son, was a nine-year-old orphan with cerebral palsy who they adopted after reading in a newspaper that Charles wanted a mother and father for Christmas. The couple had seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He held honorary degrees from several Christian universities including Bob Jones University, Grove City College, and Campbell University.

Early career (1940–1972)

Helms' first full-time job after college was as a sports reporter with The Raleigh Times. During World War II, Helms served stateside as a recruiter in the United States Navy. After the war, he pursued his twin interests, journalism and politics (at that time, within the Democratic Party). Helms became the city news editor of The Raleigh Times, and later moved to radio and television.

In 1950, Helms "played a critical role as campaign publicity director for segregationist Willis Smith" in the U.S. Senate campaign against "the most renowned Southern liberal Frank Porter Graham". Graham, who supported school desegregation, was labeled by Smith, a conservative Democratic lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association, as a "dupe of communists" and a proponent of the "mingling of the races" played out on fliers including the phrase WAKE UP WHITE PEOPLE in the virtually all-white Democratic primaries. After winning the election, Smith hired Helms to be his administrative assistant in Washington, D.C..

In 1952, Helms worked on the segregationist presidential campaign of Georgia Senator Richard Russell. After Russell dropped out of the Presidential race, Helms returned to working for Smith who died the following year. Helms returned to Raleigh and from 1953 to 1960 was executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association. He set up a home on Caswell Street in the Hayes Barton Historic District where he lived until he died.

In 1957 Helms won his first election for a Raleigh City Council seat and served two terms while earning a reputation as a conservative gadfly who "fought against everything from putting a median strip on Downtown Boulevard to an urban renewal project". In 1960, Helms worked on the unsuccessful primary gubernatorial campaign of I. Beverly Lake, Sr., who ran on a platform of racial segregation. The U.S Supreme Court had recently handed down the Cooper v. Aaron decision insisting on the dismantling of segregated school systems and that combined with the lunch-counter demonstrations in Greensboro compelled him to run. Lake lost to Terry Sanford, who ran as a racial moderate willing to implement the federal policy of school integration. Helms felt forced busing and forced racial integration caused animosity on both sides and were "proved to be unwise".

Capital Broadcasting Company

In 1960 Helms joined the Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC) as the executive vice-president, vice chairman of the board, and assistant chief executive officer. His daily CBC editorials on WRAL-TV, given at the end of each night's local news broadcast in Raleigh, made Helms famous as a conservative commentator throughout eastern North Carolina.

Helms' editorials featured folksy anecdotes interwoven with conservative views against, amongst others, "the civil rights movement, the liberal news media, and anti-war churches". He referred to The News and Observer, his former employer, as the "Nuisance and Disturber" for its promotion of liberal views. The University of North Carolina, which had a reputation for liberalism, was also a frequent target of Helms' criticism. He suggested a wall be erected around the campus to prevent the university's liberal views from "infecting" the rest of the state. Helms said the civil rights movement was infested by communists and “moral degenerates” and described Medicaid as a “step over into the swampy field of socialized medicine.”

On the 1963 civil rights protests, Helms stated "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights." He later wrote, "Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced".

Although his editorials created controversy, they also made him popular with conservative voters, helping him to win re-election to the Raleigh City Council. He served for four years. He was at Capitol Broadcasting Company until he was elected to the Senate in 1972.

Senate campaign of 1972

Helms announced his candidacy for a seat in the United States Senate in 1972. His campaign was managed by Thomas F. Ellis who would later be instrumental in Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign and also became the chair of the National Congressional Club. He won the Republican primary with 60.1 percent of the vote and eliminated two intraparty opponents. Meanwhile, Democrats retired the ailing Senator B. Everett Jordan, who lost his primary to Congressman Nick Galifianakis, a Greek American. Helms played upon Galifianakis' ethnicity during the campaign using the campaign slogan "Vote for Helms — He's One of Us! Helms polled 54 percent to Galifianakis' 46 percent, and became the first Republican elected to the Senate from North Carolina in the 20th century. Helms was undoubtedly helped by Richard Nixon's gigantic landslide victory in that year's presidential election; Nixon carried North Carolina by 41 points and won 98 of the state's 100 counties.

Senate career (1973-2002)

1976 Republican National Convention

Helms gave Ronald Reagan crucial support in 1976 in the pivotal North Carolina GOP primary that paved the way for Reagan's presidential election in 1980. The support of Helms, alongside Raleigh-based campaign operative Tom Ellis, was instrumental in Reagan winning the 1976 North Carolina primary and later presenting a major challenge to President Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention. According to author Craig Shirley, the two men deserve credit "for breathing life into the dying Reagan campaign". Going into the primary, Reagan had lost all the primaries including in New Hampshire where he had been favored, and was two million dollars in debt with a growing number of Republican leaders calling for his exit. A considerable grassroots effort formed by Ellis and backed by Helms delivered an upset victory. The momentum generated in North Carolina carried Ronald Reagan to primary wins in Texas, California, and other critical states, evening the contest between Reagan and Ford thus forcing undeclared delegates to choose at the 1976 convention. Despite the loss for Reagan at the convention, the intervention of Helms and Ellis arguably led to the most important conservative primary victory in the history of the Republican Party. This victory enabled Reagan to contest the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination, and later to win the next nomination at the 1980 Republican National Convention and ultimately Presidency of the United States. According to Craig Shirley,

Had Reagan lost North Carolina, despite his public pronouncements, his revolutionary challenge to Ford, along with his political career, would have ended unceremoniously. He would have made a gracious exit speech, cut a deal with the Ford forces to eliminate his campaign debt, made a minor speech at the Kansas City Convention later that year, and returned to his ranch in Santa Barbara. He would probably have only reemerged to make speeches and cut radio commercials to supplement his income. And Reagan would have faded into political oblivion.

Helms was later angered by the announcement that Reagan would ask the 1976 Republican National Convention to, if nominated, make moderate Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker his running mate for the general election. According to Helms, after being told by Ronald Reagan of the decision, he noted the hour because, "I wanted to record for posterity the exact time I received the shock of my life." Nevertheless, Helms continued to back Reagan, and the two remained close friends and political allies through the duration of Reagan's political career.

1978 reelection campaign

Helms ran for reelection against state Insurance Commissioner John Ingram in 1978. In a low-turnout, off-year election Helms received 619,151 votes (54.5 percent) to Ingram's 516,663 (45.5 percent). The election gave Helms his largest margin of victory in his five Senate campaigns. During the term Helms hired James Meredith, most famous as the first African-American ever admitted to the University of Mississippi, as a domestic policy adviser to his Senate office staff. This was met by criticism from some civil rights groups, but Helms countered that by saying he wanted "the best people, and it doesn't matter what their color is." Meredith noted that Helms was the only member of the Senate to respond to his offer.

Second Senate term (1979–1985)

Helms was an advocate of the tobacco industry since much of North Carolina's rural economy relies on tobacco. (Hubert Humphrey once said that, "I'll trade Jesse Helms his tobacco vote for my wheat support any day.") Tobacco companies such as R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris had supported him, both directly and through donations to the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate University. Helms became chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the 1980s.

Senator Helms was one of several Republican senators who in 1981 called into the White House to express his discontent over the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court; the opposition hinged over the issue of O'Connor's presumed unwillingness to overturn Roe v. Wade.

In 1982, Helms was the only senator who opposed a Senate resolution endorsing a pro-British policy during the Falklands War.

Helms opposed the Martin Luther King Day bill in 1983. Helms claimed that his opposition was because King had two associates with communist ties, Stanley Levison and Jack O'Dell. Helms led the Senatorial opposition to the bill, embarked on a 16-day filibuster, and raised the issue of deceased civil rights leader King's alleged philandering as part of his opposition to establishing the national holiday. Writing in the Washington Post several years later, longtime political columnist David Broder attributed Helms opposition to the MLK holiday to Helms' racism.

Though a chairman of a major Senate committee, he regularly eschewed invitations to go on Sunday interview programs, claiming his constituents did not watch them. He also advised a young press aide not to write a letter to The New York Times after one of its editorials condemned Helms: again, since most of the constituency did not subscribe to the paper, there was no need for him to engage the paper in a dispute.

Helms had close ties with and was considered a main sponsor of the right-wing Salvadoran Nationalist Republican Alliance and its leader and death squad founder Roberto D'Aubuisson. When confronted with evidence that D'Aubuisson ran death squads that systematically murdered civilians, he replied that "[a]ll I know, is that D'Aubuisson is a free enterprise man and deeply religious.

Helms condemned the forced labour camps established by the USSR. Helms opposed Fidel Castro, arms control treaties and supported the contras in Nicaragua as well as the right-wing government of El Salvador.

1984 reelection campaign

In 1984, in the most expensive Senate campaign up to that time, Helms narrowly defeated powerful two-term Governor Jim Hunt, taking 1,156,768 (51.7 percent) to Hunt's 1,070,488 (47.8 percent). Helms might not have won had it not been for Ronald Reagan's popularity in the state; Reagan carried North Carolina by 24 points that year.

HIV legislation and opposition to AIDS funding 1983–1990

In 1987 Helms added the "Helms Amendment" to the Supplemental Appropriations Act, which directed the president to use executive authority to add HIV infection to the list of excludable diseases which prevent both travel and immigration to the United States. The ban passed over objections from international public health officials and organizations who noted that this policy runs counter to established World Health Organization and International Red Cross policies. The action was also opposed by the U.S. Public Health Service. Congress restored the executive authority to remove HIV from the list of excludable conditions in the 1990 Immigration Reform Act, and in January 1991, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan announced he would delete HIV from the list of excludable conditions. A letter-writing campaign headed by Helms ultimately convinced President Bush not to lift the ban, and left the United States the only industrialized nation in the world to prohibit travel based on HIV status. The ban remains in effect as of 2008. The travel ban caused the cancellation of the 1992 International AIDS Conference in Boston.

Helms was "bitterly opposed to federal financing of AIDS research and treatment". Opposing the Kennedy-Hatch AIDS bill in 1988, Helms stated, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy. When Ryan White died in 1990, his mother went to Congress to speak to politicians on behalf of people with AIDS. She spoke to 23 representatives: Helms refused to speak to Jeanne White even when she was alone with him in an elevator. Despite opposition by Helms, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Care (CARE) Act passed in 1990.

1990 reelection campaign

Helms ran for reelection in a nationally publicized and rancorous campaign against the former mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, in his "bid to become the nation's only black Senator" and "the first black elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction". Helms aired a late-running television commercial which showed a white man's hands ripping up a rejection notice from a company that gave the job to a "less qualified minority"; critics claimed the ad utilized subliminal racist themes. The advert was produced by Alex Castellanos, considered the father of attack ads, who later made a Bush campaign advert criticizing Al Gore's healthcare policies and flashing the word 'RATS' over the top of it. Helms won the election with 1,087,331 votes (52.5 percent) to Gantt's 981,573 (47.4 percent). In his victory statement, Helms noted the unhappiness of some media outlets over his victory, quoting a line from "Casey at the Bat": "There's no joy in Mudville tonight. The mighty ultraliberal establishment, and the liberal politicians and editors and commentators and columnists have struck out."

Fourth Senate term (1991–1997)

Republicans regained control of Congress after the 1994 elections and Helms became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that role, he pushed for reform of the United Nations and blocked payment of the United States' dues. As he gained seniority and clout, Helms became known as "Senator No", a nickname he reportedly delighted in, because he obstructed Democratic bills and presidential appointments. Helms passed few laws of his own in part because of this bridge-burning style. Hedrik Smith's The Power Game depicts several senators specifically blocking Helms' goals as result of his intransigence. Helms vehemently opposed granting Most favoured nation status to China, citing human rights concerns.

Helms was a supporter of the late Chilean President Augusto Pinochet.

In 1994, Helms created a sensation when, on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, he told broadcasters Rowland Evans, Jr., and Robert Novak that Clinton was "not up" to the tasks of being commander-in-chief and suggested Clinton, "better not show up around here [Fort Bragg] without a bodyguard. Helms said Clinton was so unpopular and said he hadn't meant it as a threat.

In a widely publicized and controversial incident, Helms deeply offended Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman in the Senate and the only black Senator at the time. Soon after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia, which opponents saw as an overt symbol of racism - both for the history of racial slavery in the United States and for establishment of Jim Crow laws, Helms ran into Moseley Braun in an elevator. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, "Watch me make her cry. I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing 'Dixie' until she cries. He then proceeded to sing the song about "the good life" during slavery to Moseley Braun. Helms later blocked Moseley Braun's nomination to be U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.

Opposition to AIDS CARE Act funding

Having attempted, and failed, to block passage of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Care (CARE) Act passed in 1990, Helms tried to block its refunding in 1995, saying that those with AIDS were responsible for the disease, because they had contracted it because of their "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct", and falsely claiming that more federal dollars were spent on AIDS than heart disease or cancer. His opposition to the spending was consonant with his long term anti-gay rhetoric and opposition to civil rights for gay men and women generally. Helms had declared homosexuality "degenerate," and homosexuals "weak, morally sick wretches.

Helms-Burton Legislation

In 1995, Helms sponsored legislation targeting foreign companies that did business with Cuba. The bill allowed foreign companies to be sued in American courts if, in dealings with the regime of Fidel Castro, they acquired assets formerly owned by Americans. In February 1996, Cuba shot down two small Brothers to the Rescue planes piloted by anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. As part of the White House response to crack down on Cuba, President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act into law.

1996 reelection campaign

In 1996, Helms drew 1,345,833 (52.6 percent) to Gantt's 1,173,875 (45.9 percent). Helms supported his former Senate colleague Bob Dole for president, while Gantt endorsed Bill Clinton. Gantt said several years later, "The tension that he creates, the fear he creates in people, is how he's won campaigns." Although Helms is generally credited with being the most successful Republican politician in North Carolina history, his largest proportion of the vote in any of his five elections was 54.5 percent. In North Carolina Helms was a polarizing figure, and he freely admitted that many people in the state strongly disliked him: "They (the Democrats) could nominate Mortimer Snerd and he'd automatically get 45 percent of the vote." Helms was particularly popular among older, conservative constituents and was considered one of the last "Old South" politicians to have served in the Senate. However, he also considered himself a voice of conservative youth, whom he hailed in the dedication of his autobiography. Under Helms' banner, many conservative Democrats in eastern North Carolina switched parties and began to vote increasingly Republican.

Fifth Senate term

In 2000, Bono sought out Jesse Helms to discuss increasing U.S. aid to Africa. In Africa, AIDS is a disease that is primarily transmitted heterosexually, and Helms sympathized with Bono's description of "the pain it is bringing to infants and children and their families". Helms insisted that Bono involve the international community and private sector, so that relief efforts would not be paid for by "just Americans". Helms coauthored a bill authorizing $600 million for international AIDS relief efforts. In 2002, Helms announced that he was ashamed to have done so little during his Senate career to fight the worldwide spread of AIDS and pledged to do more during his last few months in the Senate. Helms spoke with special appreciation of the efforts of Janet Museveni, first lady of Uganda, for her efforts to stop the spread of AIDS through a campaign based on "biblical values and sexual purity.

Because of recurring health problems, including bone disorders, prostate cancer, and heart disease, Helms did not seek re-election in 2002. His Senate seat was won by Elizabeth Dole, wife of long-time colleague and former Senator Bob Dole.

Social and political views

Helms was perhaps the last unreconstructed Southern conservative and a major influence on social conservatism respected for his steadfastness of convictions. He "never apologized" for his past views on most of these issues, with the exception of AIDS, unlike other Southern politicians from the same time like Strom Thurmond, Jerry Falwell, George Wallace or Robert Byrd. Helms was also a "master obstructionist" and self-described "redneck" who relished his nickname, “Senator No”. He opposed, at various times, civil rights, gay rights, affirmative action, tax increases, abortion, foreign aid, communism, and government support for modern art with nudity(although opposition to all these but civil rights were and still are standard conservative positions). Helms brought "an aggressiveness" to his conservatism, like his rhetoric against homosexuality, and employed racially charged language in his campaigns and editorials. He combined this with cultural, social and economic conservatism which often helped his legislation win overwhelming support.

Racial equality

Helms opposed many progressive policies regarding race such as school integration, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Race was always an issue in Helms' campaigns, "[h]e was a master at using fear … whether it was communism or gay and lesbian groups or African Americans. He won elections that way and never lost." Helms called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress." Helms reminded voters that he tried, with a 16-day filibuster, to stop the Senate from approving Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to honor black civil-rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He has been accused of being a segregationist by liberals and political scholars including USA Today's DeWayne Wickham who wrote Helms "subtly carried the torch of white supremacy" from Ben Tillman. In 1996 the US Justice department admonished Helms' campaign for civil rights violations, "after it mailed 125,000 fliers to heavily African-American precincts warning that voters risked imprisonment if they cast ballots." Helms opposed "every piece of civil rights and affirmative action legislation" and blocked "Black judges from being considered for the federal bench." In 1982, he voted against the extension of the Voting Rights Act. Helms opposed busing, supported the "racist apartheid regime of South Africa", and "for years blocked attempts by President Bill Clinton to appoint a Black judge to the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals". Only when Helms' own judicial choices were threatened with blocking did attorney Roger Gregory of Richmond, Virginia get confirmed. Helms tried to block the nomination of Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black female senator, as ambassador to New Zealand.

Upon Helms' retirement announcement in 2001, David S. Broder, Washington Post columnist wrote a piece, "Jesse Helms, White Racist" noting "What is unique about Helms - and from my viewpoint, unforgivable - is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, the legacy of slavery and segregation, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans". Kerry Haynie, a Duke University political scientist, stated "Helms never, to my knowledge, relented or apologized for the hurt that he caused or the divisiveness that he injected into the politics of this state or national politics". Helms once referred to the University of North Carolina (UNC) as the "University of Negroes and Communists." (Charleston Gazette, 9/15/95)

Views on LGBT people

Helms had a negative view of LGBT people and LGBT rights in the United States. Throughout his five terms in the Senate, Helms consistently spoke out against any and all LGBT-friendly legislation without hesitation. Helms called homosexuals "weak, morally sick wretches" and tried to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting the "gay-oriented artwork of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe". In 1993, when then-president Bill Clinton wanted to appoint "out" lesbian Roberta Achtenberg to assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Helms famously held up the confirmation "because she's a damn lesbian", adding "[s]he's not your garden-variety lesbian. She's a militant-activist-mean lesbian". Helms also stated "I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine." When Clinton urged that gays be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces Helms said the president "better have a bodyguard" if he visited North Carolina. Helms single-handedly stopped the nomination of a Republican, then-Massachusetts Governor William Weld, as ambassador to Mexico citing Weld's support for gay rights.

Helms "fought bitterly against federal financing for AIDS research and treatment, saying the disease resulted from 'unnatural' and 'disgusting' homosexual behavior." “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy,” he said in 1988, ignoring other means of HIV transmission. In his final senate year he supported AIDS measures in Africa, where heterosexual transmission of the disease is most common yet still held the belief that the “homosexual lifestyle” is the cause of the spread of the epidemic in America.

Post-Senate life (2003–2008)

In 2004, he spoke out for the election of Republican U.S. Representative Richard Burr, who, like Elizabeth Dole two years earlier, defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles to win the other North Carolina Senate seat. In September 2005, Random House published his memoir Here's Where I Stand. In his memoirs, he likened abortion to the Holocaust and the September 11 terrorist attacks stating, "I will never be silent about the death of those who cannot speak for themselves." Helms had also been recruited by pop star Bono for charity work. Liberty University opened the Jesse Helms School of Government with Helms was present at the dedication; he designated Wingate University as the repository of the official papers and historical items from his Senate career.

Helms' health remained poor after he retired from the Senate in 2003, in April 2006 news reports disclosed that Helms had multi-infarct dementia, which leads to failing memory and diminished cognitive function, as well as a number of physical difficulties. He was later moved into a convalescent center near his home. Helms died of vascular dementia during the early morning hours of July 4, 2008, at the age of 86. He is buried in Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Bibliography

  • When Free Men Shall Stand (1976); Zondervan Pub. House.
  • Empire for Liberty: A Sovereign America and Her Moral Mission (2001); by National Book Network.
  • Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir (2005); New York: Random House.

See also

References

Further reading

External links

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