Jesse Helms, who died Friday in Raleigh at the age of 86, was not simply a politician, he was a force of nature.
Steadfast in his views and politically skillful, he was a powerful figure in our nation's politics. He also became a conservative icon, a symbol as well as a senator. Todd Rundgren and Loudon Wainwright III wrote songs about him. A gay filmmaker made a documentary about him.
His political savvy and the fund-raising might of his National Congressional Club made him an influential player in conservative politics. In 1976, when Ronald Reagan's pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination had stalled, the Helms machine helped him beat President Gerald Ford in the N.C. primary, reviving Mr. Reagan's career and bolstering the conservative movement that swept him into the White House in 1980.
Jesse Helms ran for the U.S. Senate five times and won every election, defeating some of the state's most prominent Democrats. He told voters what he wanted to do if elected, and he did his best to do it. His supporters liked his fiscal conservatism, his strict moral judgments and his outspoken distaste for much of modern life.
He opposed Medicare as “a step into the swampy field of socialized medicine.”' He called Social Security “nothing more than doles and handouts.” He branded Martin Luther King Jr. a communist collaborator who preached “hatred for America.” He called the University of North Carolina the “University of Negroes and Communists” and advocated fencing it in to prevent contamination of the rest of the state.
In an era when most conservative Southern politicians were moving away from racist campaigning, he continued to exploit racial issues to solidify his white support.
He opposed court-ordered integration, homosexuals, modern art and most foreign aid. He was a fierce anti-communist and a supporter of many right-wing dictators. He personified what many international observers disliked about U.S. politics. For example, his effort to penalize Canada for trading with Cuba prompted the Ottawa Citizen to call him “a ranting anti-communist, a jingoist, a southern conservative nincompoop.”
Denunciations bothered Sen. Helms not at all. He believed that if such critics considered him an enemy, they were right.
About Jesse Helms the man there was much to like: his personal generosity, his courtliness, his devotion to his family.
His staff's dedication to meeting constituents' needs was legendary. He pushed for much-needed reform of the UN. Near the end of his career, influenced by the singer Bono, he became an advocate of greater federal funding to fight AIDS overseas. He said he was ashamed for not “doing something really significant” to fight the spread of AIDS.
Early in his career we called him an effective advocate of a political philosophy we did not share. We considered the way he practiced politics to be divisive and harmful to the state. Over the years his views did not change. Neither did ours.