Local Politics

Helms was a 'political warrior' and 'Southern gentleman'

Posted July 4, 2008
Updated October 12, 2011

— Everybody, it seems, had an opinion about Jesse Helms.

Supporters called him a man of principle, character and backbone who always would make it clear where he stood on issues. Those who opposed his political views characterized him as mean, narrow-minded and out of touch with modern society.

Helms was an outspoken conservative politician whose attacks against communism, liberal elitism and some of the civil rights legislation made him one of the most controversial and loathed prominent political figures in North Carolina history.

That's because the former U.S. senator was a political warrior who loved politics, remembered Rob Christensen, a political columnist for the News & Observer and author of "The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics."

"Everybody – friends and foes – said that. He loved a political battle," Christensen said Friday. "He loved to mix it up. He wouldn't cross the street to avoid a fight; he'd cross the street to get into a fight. And that's why a lot of people loved him and why a lot of people hated him."

"The characterization is so different from the man I knew," Jack Hawke, former chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said. "He was warm and generous and considerate and just a nice human being. And that's certainly not the characterization a lot of people give."

Those, like Hawke, who knew the five-term senator personally, remember him as a Southern gentleman who was courteous and caring.

"This man, consistently on Capitol Hill, showed what a true Southern gentleman is," former North Carolina Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten said.

"Even though the senator and I disagreed on things over the years, it was never one that had any acrimony. I think everybody should know that this man was never impressed with power. He never got the hubris bug. He never thought that he could never do any wrong."

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison was a state trooper in the early 1990s and worked security detail for Helms. He came to know him and his family on a personal level over the years.

"You know where the man's coming from. He was true from his heart and a lot of people didn't see it that way, and I didn't see it that way until I got to know him," Harrison said "A lot of people saw him as crusty; and he was, in his own way. But I really got to know him traveling with him, and my impression changed of him."

Barry Saunders, also a News & Observer columnist, recalled his last conversation with Helms in 2003.

"Believe it or not, it was a very pleasant conversation. I had been warned that he was a very gentlemanly and courteous guy who could be very charming," Saunders said. "And during our conversation, of course, I had to keep reminding myself, 'This guy opposes everything that you believe.'"

Saunders says Helms' opposition to a national holiday honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a filibuster against the extension of the Voting Rights Act, among other actions regarding race relations means he won't be remembered kindly by the black community.

"It's very unlikely. Most people didn't have a chance to talk to him one-on-one, as I did, so they didn't know about his personal charm and southern gentlemanliness," he said. "So, that means nothing to them. And it may not mean anything to them even if they did know about it."

So what will Helms' legacy be?

"Jesse was part of the movement that started in American politics that led to a victory in the Cold War," said Republican political consultant Carter Wrenn, who worked with Helms for 20 years. "And he was an important part of that movement."

"I think Jesse will be remembered as an icon and as, pretty much, the father of the modern Republican Party (in North Carolina)," Saunders said.

Evangelist Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of Rev. Billy Graham, and a personal friend of the Helms family, characterizes Helms as one of the great patriots in America.

"He loved the Lord Jesus Christ, and he loved his family, and he loved his country," she said. "And to make his exit this particular day, I thought was something that would meaningful for him and put sort of an exclamation point to his life."


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  • Obama-is-a-retard Jul 4, 2008

    Jesse there are not many men left that can be respected the way you where. You said what you meant and did what you said. Politics are all about what do people want to hear me say now. I'll vote and do what I feel not what the people want. They don't care about what the people say or need. They just care about themselves.

  • bluewater Jul 4, 2008

    Thanks geoherb1, it confirms the worst views of Helms.

  • Cloudy Jul 4, 2008

    Rest in peace, Senator No.

  • FloydTurbo Jul 4, 2008

    A very fair and decent article on a controversial public figure. Kudos to WRAL for e-publishing these remarks.

    Hopefully the Helms-haters will spare this one space the toxic venom they have spread elsewhere today. Jesse Helms can't torment them any more. Move on to other targets.

  • SaveEnergyMan Jul 4, 2008

    He was a true patriot and diligent servant of the people of NC. Like his politics or not, he always spoke his opinion and you at least had to admire that. RIP.

  • JeffersonDavis Jul 4, 2008

    We were very lucky to have such a great man represent us for so many years. Thank you for your service Senator and may God bless and comfort your family and everyone who knew you.

  • shep8851 Jul 4, 2008

    Jessie Helms, like Sam Ervin was a man of and for the people of North Carolina and the United States. Have to wonder if we will ever see their like again.

  • Butterbean Jul 4, 2008

    We lost a GREAT AMERICAN in Jesse Helms passing. RIP Jesse.