Conservative icon Jesse Helms dead at 86
Posted July 4, 2008
Updated December 3, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — Jesse Helms, the firebrand United States senator whose outspoken, conservative views polarized North Carolina and U.S. voters for decades, died at 1:15 a.m. Friday in Raleigh, according to John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center.
He joins the second, third and fifth presidents of the United States – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe – who also died on Independence Day.
He was 86. His cause of death was not released. Helms will lie in repose on Monday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh. His funeral is at 2 p.m. Tuesday also at the church. A private burial will follow.
Helms served five terms in the U.S. Senate, retiring in 2003 because of his faltering health. During his 30 years in Capitol Hill, the North Carolina Republican became a powerful voice for a conservative movement that was growing both in Congress and across the country, and he used his position to speak out against issues like gay rights, federal funding for the arts and U.S. foreign aid.
"I had sought election in 1972 to try to derail the freight train of liberalism that was gaining speed toward its destination of government-run everything, paid for with big tax bills and record debt," Helms wrote in his 2005 memoir, "Here's Where I Stand."
"My goal, when my wife, Dot, and I decided I would run, was to stick to my principles and stand up for conservative ideals."
Helms' ideals were forged in the Union County town of Monroe, where his father served as police chief. "Big Jesse" Helms raised his son in a strict family base on the Baptist faith and law-and-order principles. "When he said 'smile,' I smiled," the younger Helms later recalled.
A state champion tuba player in high school, Helms briefly attending both Wingate Junior College and Wake Forest College before dropping out to begin a career in journalism. He met his future wife, Dorothy Coble, while working at The News & Observer in Raleigh. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a recruiter before returning to the newspaper business after the war.
Building a base
Helms got his first taste of life in Washington, D.C., in 1950, when he worked on the U.S. Senate campaign of segregationist Democratic candidate Willis Smith against the more moderate Frank Porter Graham and served as Smith's assistant after the election. But when Smith died three years later, Helms returned to Raleigh and became executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association. He won his first public office in 1957, serving one term on the Raleigh City Council, where he became known as a feisty and tight-fisted budget guardian.
In 1960, he moved to the executive offices of Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent of WRAL, and he developed a strong following across eastern North Carolina over the next decade by appearing in editorials that ran at the end of each night's evening newscast. The editorials blended folksy anecdotes with conservative viewpoints that blasted the federal government, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other entities he viewed as too liberal.
Using the name recognition and conservative base he built through the on-air editorials, Helms ran for the U.S. Senate in 1972. He had switched to the Republican Party two years earlier out of frustration with the Democratic Party's stance on civil rights, and President Richard Nixon's landslide win helped propel him to a victory over Congressman Nick Galifianakis of Durham, making Helms the first Republican senator from North Carolina in the 20th century.
In the following three decades, Helms beat back campaigns of former Gov. Jim Hunt and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, among others, to hold onto his Senate seat. But he was accused of using racial politics to secure narrow victories. In the 1990 campaign against Gantt, for example, a Helms television ad showed a white man's hands crumpling a rejection notice from a company that had used an affirmative action program to hire a black job candidate.
His views on race relations – he opposed a national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., led a filibuster against the extension of the Voting Rights Act and called some young blacks "Negro hoodlums" – and social issues sharply divided the public into those who viewed him as a champion of the common man and those who thought of him as a narrow-minded bigot.
David Broder, a widely respected political columnist for The Washington Post, called Helms "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country."
"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," Broder wrote shortly after Helms announced that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2002.
Helms acknowledged his polarizing character, saying famed ventriloquist dummy Mortimer Snerd could run as the Democratic candidate for Senate against him and garner 45 percent of the vote.
"I wasn't interested in a popularity contest and surely didn't care about anything the big newspapers called me," he said. "I saw how they constantly ridiculed conservative ideas and conservative people."
In his early years in office, Helms chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, providing critical support for North Carolina's tobacco industry. When the Republicans gained control of Congress after the 1994 elections, he gained control of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he became a vocal critic of the former Soviet Union, China and Cuba and a strong advocate of anti-communist – and sometimes repressive – regimes in Latin America and Asia.
He also used his clout on the committee to push for reform of the United Nations, block payment of UN dues by the United States and oppose Democratic-sponsored foreign aid packages and trade deals. The recalcitrant stance he took on many issues garnered him the nickname "Senator No," which only delighted him. "The Raleigh News & Observer dubbed me 'Senator No.' It wasn't meant as a compliment, but I certainly took it as one. There was plenty to stand up and say no to during my first of five terms representing the people of North Carolina," he said.
Other senators weren't as appreciative of his legislative style, and they often returned the favor by opposing bills he sponsored. Hedrick Smith, the Washington correspondent for The New York Times, called Helms' strategy "porcupine power," noting he tried to accomplish as much as possible by being prickly. Others noted he could use Southern manners to disarm opponents.
"Jesse Helms was the kindest, most infuriating, politest, most aggravating and nicest politician I had to deal with in the United States Senate," former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a 2001 interview.
Move to the right
Helms' role as standard bearer for the conservative movement is his most lasting legacy in state and national politics. His switch to the Republican Party in 1970 paved the way for many politicians across North Carolina to follow suit, eventually ending decades of one-party control in state and local government.
After the Watergate scandal, he jumped into the GOP vacuum in Washington and began to reshape the Republican Party in his conservative image. With a cadre of young, bright activists at his side, he formed a the National Congressional Club and other committees across the country, soliciting small donations through direct-mail pitches to thousands of people and creating a fundraising machine for the conservative cause and GOP candidates.
The machine helped oust North Carolina Democrats Robert Morgan and Terry Sanford from the U.S. Senate, replacing them with conservative Republicans John East and Lauch Faircloth, respectively.
"We'll never forget how he battled, especially during those first lonely years, to protect our liberties, preserve our family values and keep America strong. There he was, standing day after day to a government Goliath, crying out like a voice in the wilderness," former President Ronald Reagan said in a 1983 speech. "Bit by bit, he became more than a lonely crusader. He grew into a lionhearted leader of a great and growing army."
Many political observers credit Helms' support for catapulting Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and accelerating the conservative agenda – cutting taxes at home, fighting communism abroad and opposing many government social programs – at the national level. He also served as Reagan's right flank for years, allowing the president to make political compromises as needed. "(I decided to) stay to the right of the president's right and make it easier for Reagan to be Reagan," Helms wrote in his memoir.
Holding down the far right of U.S. politics made Helms a foil for the media and liberal activists in a growing culture war as the conservative movement expanded. He was so outspoken in his opposition to art he considered offensive, federal funding for AIDS research and women's issues like legalized abortion that he helped Democrats raise millions of dollars to support candidates who backed those causes.
"Most North Carolinians are not as conservative as Jesse Helms," state Sen. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said in a 1995 interview. "But by presenting himself as a man of courage, willing to stand up against 'tax-and-spend liberals,' homosexuality and so forth, Helms commands respect."
End of an era
In August 2001, Helms announced he wouldn't seek a sixth term in the Senate. A series of health problems, from knee replacement surgery to prostate cancer to a heart bypass, had worn him down to the point where he needed a motorized scooter to navigate the halls of Congress.
He had earlier designated Wingate University, which allowed him to pursue higher education, as the recipient of his official papers. But he rejected the notion of a "dusty museum" and instead supported the university's creation of the Jesse Helms Center. The nonprofit foundation continues to espouse the political principles of its namesake, educating students, teachers and others on subjects like foreign policy, free enterprise and the Bill of Rights.
Helms and his wife spent his final years quietly in Raleigh, although he continued to follow politics and endorsed several candidates, including his granddaughter, Jennifer Knox, who won a District Court judgeship in Wake County in 2004.
"It has always been my contention," he wrote in his memoir, "that there is no sense in being in office if you don't have the courage to do what is right, even if it is the most unpopular position in the world."