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Helms helped Reagan win office, and Reagan returned the favor

Sen. Jesse Helms was quick with an answer in 2002, when asked which of the seven presidents he served under was his favorite.

“That's easy,” he told the Observer. “R.R. – Ronald Reagan.”

The feelings were mutual: Reagan frequently gave campaign speeches to help Helms raise money, wrote him admiring letters and even phoned him on his birthday.

They didn't always agree on tactics or even on issues – Reagan, for example, signed into law the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill that Helms unsuccessfully filibustered. Their styles were different, too: Helms was “Senator No.” Reagan was the sunny, smiling Gipper.

But these two conservative titans shared a deep antipathy to communism and big government. And both brought millions of working-class white Democrats under the Republican banner.

Reagan and Helms also helped each other politically over the years.

Pundits were busy writing Reagan's political obituary in 1976, after he lost a series of Republican primaries to then-President Ford. But Helms and his hard-edged political machine, the National Congressional Club, resurrected Reagan's challenge that year by giving him a pivotal win in North Carolina's GOP presidential primary.

To win, the Helms team attacked Ford's support of the Panama Canal treaty and circulated leaflets pointing out that Ford was considering a black man – Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass. – as a possible running mate.

Ford ended up with his party's nomination, barely, but Reagan's Helms-engineered showing in 1976 paved the way for his White House win in 1980.

Reagan returned the favor in 1984, when he was re-elected in a 49-state landslide. The president's long coattails in North Carolina helped Helms, running for re-election himself, beat back a strong challenge from N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt in what was then the most expensive and one of the nastiest Senate races in U.S. history.

A 2002 Observer review of documents at the sprawling Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., also turned up evidence that Helms was rarely shy about bumping heads with a Reagan administration he wished were tougher and more conservative.

Sometimes Helms blocked Reagan's ambassador nominations; other times, he wrote the president impatient letters or attached controversial amendments to White House-backed bills.

A frustrated Reagan even once described Helms as a “thorn in my side.”

One confrontation: In September 1982, Reagan agreed to support a Helms amendment to a federal debt-ceiling bill that would have legally recognized fetuses as human beings. But then Helms complicated things – and angered the White House – by attaching still another controversial amendment about prayer in public schools.

“It is unfortunate that Sen. Helms' parliamentary approach makes passage of the amendment stripping federal courts' jurisdiction over school prayer a (condition) of Senate passage of the anti-abortion amendment,” read a White House memo to Reagan. “You have rejected the statutory school prayer approach based on its questionable constitutionality.”

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