Local Politics

'Good and faithful servant' Jesse Helms praised, remembered

Posted July 7, 2008 7:00 a.m. EDT
Updated October 12, 2011 9:49 a.m. EDT

— Family and political colleagues Tuesday praised the service and integrity of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms as hundreds of people attended his funeral, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

Helms, 86, died July 4 after years of declining health.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate minority leader, told the packed Hayes Barton Baptist Church that he recalled Helms' being asked one time about his ambitions after serving in the Senate. Helms replied, "The only thing I'm running for is the Kingdom of Heaven," McConnell noted.

As he praised Helms, McConnell echoed a biblical passage read by Rev. Tom Bodkin, Hayes Barton associate pastor: "Well done, good and faithful servant. … Come and share in your master’s joy.”

Helms' adherence to his principles was a theme throughout the speakers' comments.

There is often a disconnect between how the public perceives a person and how that person is one-on-one, McConnell said. "No one seemed to suffer more from this peculiar disconnect more than Jesse Helms, and no one seemed to care about it less," he said as the congregation laughed heartily.

A frequent target of editorial-page critics, Helms was unfazed, McConnell recalled. He relished a wall covered with editorial cartoons about him, the minority leader said.

Once, after The New York Times had criticized Helms severely, McConnell said, an aide drafted an equally harsh response. Helms read it, then put his hand on the aide's shoulder and told him, "Son, just so you understand, I don't care what The New York Times says about me."

"He put duty above all else," McConnell said, "duty to God, to country, to family and a duty that's often overlooked – the duty of treating other people well."

"You always knew where Jesse Helms stood on the issues," but not how hard it could be to hold those stands in the face of criticism, his granddaughter, Wake District Judge Jennifer Knox, told the congregation.

"You can compromise on your preferences, but never your principles" was the lesson he taught, Knox said.

McConnell quoted a message that the singer Bono had sent to the Jesse Helms Center: "Give (Helms' wife) Dot and the family my love and tell them there are 2 million people alive in Africa because Jesse Helms did the right thing.”

Among those in the church were Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Joseph Biden, D-Del., both of whom served with Helms on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who took Helms' seat when he retired in 2002, and her husband, former Sen. Robert Dole, who represented Kansas; and Cindy McCain, the wife of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

Bodkin presided over the funeral services, and speakers included McConnell, former aide Jimmy Broughton and Helms’ grandchildren.

Also attending were most of the state's delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Cheney flew in for the funeral, according to Cheney spokeswoman Megan Mitchell, and Interstate 40 was closed for his motorcade after he landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The funeral was shown on closed-circuit television in a nearby gym. The church and gym each seat about 800 people.

A private burial service followed.

Several hundred people paid respects to Helms at a closed-casket visitation at the church Monday. Attendance was steady during the day and picked up in the early evening when Helms' family greeted visitors at the front of the sanctuary.

The coffin of Helms, who served in the Senate from 1973 to 2003, was covered with a U.S. flag and flanked by two state Highway Patrol troopers before the service began. The front of the sanctuary was decorated with flowers sent by U.S. senators and a painting of Helms at work.

Helms won his first election in 1972 after a career in newspapers, radio and television commentaries and rose to become a powerful committee chairman.

He never lost a political race, but his margin of victory was never large, reflecting his image as a polarizing figure both at home and in Washington. In the Senate, he forced roll-call votes that required Democrats to take politically difficult votes on cultural issues, such as federal funding for art he deemed pornographic, school busing and flag-burning.

He also ran racially tinged campaigns in his last two runs for Senate, defeating former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black, in 1990 and 1996.