On the afternoon of Nov. 7, 1972, Jesse Helms handed a young aide named Patrick Reilly the drafts of two typewritten speeches.
“I’m going to need one of these tonight,” Helms told Reilly. “Make sure I get the right one.”
Later that night, Reilly, then 20, slipped one of the drafts onto the podium at Raleigh’s Hilton Hotel and smiled as Helms addressed jubilant supporters.
“The people of North Carolina have today united in a great bipartisan effort to seek the restoration and preservation of their freedoms,” said the U.S. Senator-elect.
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But Reilly kept the other draft, the concession speech.
He took it home to upstate New York and saved it through decades of successive moves. Last year he sent it to the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate. The center plans to release it this week, the 45th anniversary of Helms’ first election to the U.S. Senate.
The speech that Helms never gave would have changed the arc of American politics, the conservative movement and maybe even the presidency. It could have abruptly aborted a Senate career that went on to last for three decades. It was one that made him a pioneer of modern attack politics, invoking hot-button issues of race and homosexuality. He reached levels of international influence no North Carolinian had ever enjoyed.
“I accept the consequences of the people’s verdict with good cheer,” Helms was prepared to say. “I am grateful for the fact that I live in a land where I could try.”
By all accounts, Helms and his supporters felt good about his chances on Election Day. But they knew no Republican had been elected to the Senate or to any statewide office in North Carolina in the 20th Century. His opponent, Democratic congressman Nick Galifianakis, had enjoyed a double-digit lead in early polls.
“Everybody in the Helms camp thought it was pretty close and we were behind, so a concession speech wouldn’t be a surprise,” says Carter Wrenn, a volunteer in 1972 who would go on to run Helms’ campaign organization. “We didn’t think we had this in the bag.”
Momentum and coattails
In mid-September, Helms’ campaign had begun hitting Galifianakis with ads that attacked him for missing congressional votes. “Where was Nick?” the ads asked.
Later they portrayed their opponent as a liberal in the mold of George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee. And full-page newspaper ads touted Helms with the slogan, “He’s one of us,” which critics took as a slur against Galifianakis’ Greek heritage.
The ads took their toll as Galifianakis’ lead shrank, according to Helms’ biographer William Link. But the race was still close when President Richard Nixon came to the Greensboro airport two days before the election. Helms and Jim Holshouser, the GOP candidate for governor, joined him on the tarmac.
Helms introduced Nixon and the president returned the favor, recalling how they had known each other since Helms was a Senate aide in the 1950s.
“Ever since that time, I’ve known Jesse Helms for his intelligence, his compassion and his dedication,” Nixon told the crowd of more than 10,000.
Helms’ advisers felt the momentum, but the candidate remained wary.
“In his mind I’m sure he felt good about the thing,” says Charlie Black, Helms’ young political director. “But he was a research-driven guy and he wasn’t going to have some political hacks like me say ‘You’re going to win’ and take it at face value.”
By election night, the signs looked good. Black polled campaign volunteers from around the state about local results. In a suite at the Hilton, he told Helms it was getting clear that he would win. Helms grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into a bathroom.
“All he said was, ‘I hope you’re right’,” Black recalls.
In the end, it was Nixon who helped pull Helms and Holshouser to victory. The president won almost 70 percent of the vote in North Carolina. Helms won 54 percent and Holshouser, 51 percent.
So what would have happened if Helms had given the other speech? The one Patrick Reilly hung onto for more than 40 years?
“He was a key transformational figure in the state and the nation,” says biographer Link, a professor of history at the University of Florida.
▪ Republican Ronald Reagan had lost five contests in his 1976 race against President Gerald Ford and felt growing pressure to withdraw when he turned to Helms and his organization, led by lawyer Tom Ellis. They helped him to a crucial win in North Carolina that would help send him to the White House four years later.
“Jesse Helms and Tom Ellis saved Ronald Reagan’s career,” says Black, who went on to be an adviser to Reagan and other GOP presidents. “You can say without them, he wouldn’t have been president.”
▪ Helms helped build the Republican Party in North Carolina and, with Reagan, fostered what became known as the New Right across the country.
According to Black, he also fended off an effort by some conservatives in the 1970s to form a third party. “Helms said no,” Black says.
▪ Helms was at the forefront of modern campaigns. His National Congressional Club raised millions and built a national following through direct mail. He became a master of TV attack ads and invoked hot-button issues to help win elections.
“In several respects,” says Link, “he pioneered a new kind of politics that we’re in right now. Hyper-partisanship. Attacks. Shall we say, sometimes a little fast and loose with the facts?”
▪ As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms wielded outsize influence on foreign policy and became the first member of Congress to address the United Nations Security Council. Once an vocal foe of AIDS funding, he became a supporter through the intervention of singer Bono.
After Helms died in 2008, Bono left a voicemail with the Jesse Helms Center.
“There are 2 million people alive in Africa today because Jesse Helms did the right thing,” he said in the recording.
None of that would have transpired if Patrick Reilly had put other pages on the podium that night at the Raleigh Hilton 1972.
“I think it is everlastingly true that a man is never so close to victory as when defeated in a good cause,” Helms was prepared to say.
“I may have failed but you haven’t. There will be another day to try again, another opportunity to grasp, another challenge to confront. I ask only that you be ready.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.