Local Politics

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

Posted July 4, 2008 6:28 p.m. EDT
Updated October 12, 2011 9:49 a.m. EDT

— 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."