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‘Senator No' waged tough battles

In person, one on one, he was often gracious, even grandfatherly.

But as a member of the U.S. Senate, Republican Jesse Helms' style was combative, not conciliatory.

Elected in 1972 to a body long known for its collegiality and horse-trading, Helms brought an uncompromising approach to hot-button conservative issues such as abortion, school prayer and whether to pay U.S. dues to the United Nations.

Over 30 years, this master of the Senate's arcane parliamentary rules filibustered bills, attached divisive amendments to otherwise noncontroversial legislation, and blocked appointments – even some made by GOP presidents.

While Helms' name is on few major pieces of legislation, his influence reached from the farms of North Carolina to capitals around the globe.

The N.C. senator leaves “an ideological and political legacy … not a policy legacy,” says Bill Link, author of “Righteous Warrior,” a new biography of Helms.

“He was against a lot of things … And at least until the early '90s, he was fighting against a lot of things.”

From his first days in the Senate, Helms earned his famous nickname – “Senator No” – and helped turn the upper chamber into a place known for its battles pitting conservatives against liberals.

Helms mellowed some in his last years, lobbying for African children orphaned by AIDS, a disease he had once said was killing homosexuals because of their own “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”

Strident crusader

North Carolina's first Republican senator in the 20th century arrived in Washington intent on furthering a fledgling conservative agenda.

A strident anti-communist crusader, Helms criticized President Nixon's decision to go to “Red” China in the 1970s, and opposed, even stalled, nuclear weapons treaties with the Soviets.

When Cold War tensions shifted to Central and South America, he and his staff ran what amounted to their own mini-State Department. In the 1970s and '80s, they offered encouragement and more to right-wing, often autocratic, forces in El Salvador, Chile and Nicaragua.

Helms' closest-known foreign associate was El Salvador's Roberto d'Aubuisson, a rightist paramilitary leader identified by the State Department as responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was saying Mass.

Helms was the only senator to back the Argentine junta against Britain during the Falklands war. He advocated the invasion of Cuba and was one of few American conservatives to back the white apartheid regimes in southern Africa.

Helms also supported Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“Dear Senator and Friend,” began a letter from Pinochet that was unearthed at the Helms Center in Wingate.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s, Helms zeroed in on left-leaning governments and demanded reforms from the United Nations.

In 1997, Helms had an ugly spat with the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, when Cook insisted America should pay its debt to the United Nations “in full and on time.”

“We saved your bacon two times this century,” Helms retorted furiously, “and when we need something, you don't give us a thing.”

Because of Helms, several major treaties never became law: the Kyoto Protocol against global warming, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the proposed land mine treaty.

One of the few major bills sponsored by Helms – the so-called Helms-Burton law – bars the United States from normalizing relations with Cuba as long as Castro or his brother Raul, who has been president since February, are involved in the island nation's government.

Advocate for N.C.

As a senator who believed in less federal spending – except when it came to the Pentagon – Helms was never big on securing “pork barrel” projects for back home. Still, he was a advocate for N.C. interests, including besieged tobacco farmers, cigarette companies and the textile industry.

Plus, his constituent service operation was among the best ever, with aides quick to solve problems folks back home had with Social Security checks or military benefits. He was usually available, too, when Tar Heel tourists visited his Washington office for a chat and an autographed picture.

At a 2005 Washington area dinner honoring Helms, who retired in 2003, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told the crowd that heads of state sometimes waited while Helms, longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with N.C. schoolchildren.

But it sometimes seemed as if Helms, the senator, was serving two constituencies: The people of North Carolina and conservative activists across the country.

More so than even President Reagan, Helms succeeded in making “liberal” a dirty word.

Democrats have been running from that label since Helms revolutionized modern campaigning by sending fundraising letters and airing TV ads attacking the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Helms' political longevity and his national stature were enhanced by his National Congressional Club. He and Tom Ellis, an N.C. lawyer, started it to help pay off Helms's campaign debts from the 1972 campaign. The club grew to be a political action committee and the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar set of nonprofit corporations, tax-exempt foundations and political education committees.

A man alone

Helms' Senate career was filled with moments where he stood, sometimes alone, for causes that became part of the agenda for a growing conservative movement of activists, politicians and radio talk show hosts:

In 1978, Helms tried, unsuccessfully, to head off Senate approval of the Panama Canal treaty by charging that Panamanian ruler Omar Torrijos and associates covered up drug trafficking.

Four years later, Helms tried, again unsuccessfully, to ban federal funding for abortion and bar federal courts from hearing challenges to organized school prayer.

In 1989, Helms launched a national debate over federal funding for the arts by objecting to an NEA grant for Andres Serrano, who photographed a crucifix in a jar of urine.

And in 1990, the year he was elected to a fourth term, Helms angered gays by opposing a $600 million AIDS relief bill, calling it an effort by homosexuals to whip up hysteria.

But, on some issues, even conservative allies such as Reagan considered Helms too far afield.

One big example: In 1983, Helms called Martin Luther King Jr. a Marxist and moral misfit during his foiled filibuster of the bill – later signed into law by Reagan – to make the slain civil rights leader's birthday a national holiday.

Helms never offered regrets for his divisive stands on race. But by the 1990s, he did seem to change, to soften, on other issues.

He went to speak to the United Nations.

He teamed up with a world-famous rock star – U2's Bono – to help AIDS victims in Africa.

He even befriended the female secretary of state for Democratic President Clinton. When Madeleine Albright visited the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate, she brought along a T-shirt for the sheepish and no longer so confrontational Helms.

Its message: “Somebody at the State Department Loves Me.”

The New York Times and The Washington Post contributed.

In person, one on one, he was often gracious, even grandfatherly.

But as a member of the U.S. Senate, Republican Jesse Helms' style was combative, not conciliatory.

Elected in 1972 to a body long known for its collegiality and horse-trading, Helms brought an uncompromising approach to hot-button conservative issues such as abortion, school prayer and whether to pay U.S. dues to the United Nations.

Over 30 years, this master of the Senate's arcane parliamentary rules filibustered bills, attached divisive amendments to otherwise noncontroversial legislation, and blocked appointments – even some made by GOP presidents.

While Helms' name is on few major pieces of legislation, his influence reached from the farms of North Carolina to capitals around the globe.

The N.C. senator leaves “an ideological and political legacy … not a policy legacy,” says Bill Link, author of “Righteous Warrior,” a new biography of Helms.

“He was against a lot of things … And at least until the early '90s, he was fighting against a lot of things.”

From his first days in the Senate, Helms earned his famous nickname – “Senator No” – and helped turn the upper chamber into a place known for its battles pitting conservatives against liberals.

Helms mellowed some in his last years, lobbying for African children orphaned by AIDS, a disease he had once said was killing homosexuals because of their own “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.”

Strident crusader

North Carolina's first Republican senator in the 20th century arrived in Washington intent on furthering a fledgling conservative agenda.

A strident anti-communist crusader, Helms criticized President Nixon's decision to go to “Red” China in the 1970s, and opposed, even stalled, nuclear weapons treaties with the Soviets.

When Cold War tensions shifted to Central and South America, he and his staff ran what amounted to their own mini-State Department. In the 1970s and '80s, they offered encouragement and more to right-wing, often autocratic, forces in El Salvador, Chile and Nicaragua.

Helms' closest-known foreign associate was El Salvador's Roberto d'Aubuisson, a rightist paramilitary leader identified by the State Department as responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was saying Mass.

Helms was the only senator to back the Argentine junta against Britain during the Falklands war. He advocated the invasion of Cuba and was one of few American conservatives to back the white apartheid regimes in southern Africa.

Helms also supported Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“Dear Senator and Friend,” began a letter from Pinochet that was unearthed at the Helms Center in Wingate.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s, Helms zeroed in on left-leaning governments and demanded reforms from the United Nations.

In 1997, Helms had an ugly spat with the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, when Cook insisted America should pay its debt to the United Nations “in full and on time.”

“We saved your bacon two times this century,” Helms retorted furiously, “and when we need something, you don't give us a thing.”

Because of Helms, several major treaties never became law: the Kyoto Protocol against global warming, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the proposed land mine treaty.

One of the few major bills sponsored by Helms – the so-called Helms-Burton law – bars the United States from normalizing relations with Cuba as long as Castro or his brother Raul, who has been president since February, are involved in the island nation's government.

Advocate for N.C.

As a senator who believed in less federal spending – except when it came to the Pentagon – Helms was never big on securing “pork barrel” projects for back home. Still, he was a advocate for N.C. interests, including besieged tobacco farmers, cigarette companies and the textile industry.

Plus, his constituent service operation was among the best ever, with aides quick to solve problems folks back home had with Social Security checks or military benefits. He was usually available, too, when Tar Heel tourists visited his Washington office for a chat and an autographed picture.

At a 2005 Washington area dinner honoring Helms, who retired in 2003, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told the crowd that heads of state sometimes waited while Helms, longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with N.C. schoolchildren.

But it sometimes seemed as if Helms, the senator, was serving two constituencies: The people of North Carolina and conservative activists across the country.

More so than even President Reagan, Helms succeeded in making “liberal” a dirty word.

Democrats have been running from that label since Helms revolutionized modern campaigning by sending fundraising letters and airing TV ads attacking the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Helms' political longevity and his national stature were enhanced by his National Congressional Club. He and Tom Ellis, an N.C. lawyer, started it to help pay off Helms's campaign debts from the 1972 campaign. The club grew to be a political action committee and the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar set of nonprofit corporations, tax-exempt foundations and political education committees.

A man alone

Helms' Senate career was filled with moments where he stood, sometimes alone, for causes that became part of the agenda for a growing conservative movement of activists, politicians and radio talk show hosts:

In 1978, Helms tried, unsuccessfully, to head off Senate approval of the Panama Canal treaty by charging that Panamanian ruler Omar Torrijos and associates covered up drug trafficking.

Four years later, Helms tried, again unsuccessfully, to ban federal funding for abortion and bar federal courts from hearing challenges to organized school prayer.

In 1989, Helms launched a national debate over federal funding for the arts by objecting to an NEA grant for Andres Serrano, who photographed a crucifix in a jar of urine.

And in 1990, the year he was elected to a fourth term, Helms angered gays by opposing a $600 million AIDS relief bill, calling it an effort by homosexuals to whip up hysteria.

But, on some issues, even conservative allies such as Reagan considered Helms too far afield.

One big example: In 1983, Helms called Martin Luther King Jr. a Marxist and moral misfit during his foiled filibuster of the bill – later signed into law by Reagan – to make the slain civil rights leader's birthday a national holiday.

Helms never offered regrets for his divisive stands on race. But by the 1990s, he did seem to change, to soften, on other issues.

He went to speak to the United Nations.

He teamed up with a world-famous rock star – U2's Bono – to help AIDS victims in Africa.

He even befriended the female secretary of state for Democratic President Clinton. When Madeleine Albright visited the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate, she brought along a T-shirt for the sheepish and no longer so confrontational Helms.

Its message: “Somebody at the State Department Loves Me.”

The New York Times and The Washington Post contributed.

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