Over a U.S. Senate career that helped shape three decades of American politics, Jesse Helms was a figure seven presidents didn't always agree with but could rarely ignore.
“He should be remembered as an architect of modern conservatism and the changes that came to American public life,” biographer William Link said Friday.
The senator from North Carolina, who helped build the Republican Party in the South and fuel the conservative movement across the country, died early on Friday, the Fourth of July. He was 86.
Helms died in the Raleigh nursing home where he'd been living since being diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2006.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
A Monroe native, the fiery former broadcaster served 30 years in the Senate before retiring in 2003.
To admirers, Helms was a man of principle who stood for conservative values even when he stood alone. Supporters didn't always agree with him. But they knew where he stood.
Critics knew, too.
To them, he was a cynical manipulator who oversimplified issues, supported right-wing dictators and built a half-century career on race-baiting, polarizing politics.
Helms' death comes three years after he sought to define his legacy in a memoir. In it, he acknowledged mistakes in his early opposition to AIDS funding. On Friday, the singer Bono, who helped expose the senator to the plight of AIDS victims, called John Dodd, director of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate.
“There are 2 million people alive in Africa today because Jesse Helms did the right thing,” Bono said in a voicemail.
In his memoir, Helms also said he never advocated segregation or used race as a political wedge, a claim critics found disingenuous. They say he often used race, especially in his campaigns against Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African American.
“He clearly was a major figure in North Carolina's political history,” Gantt said Friday. “(But) Jesse Helms' politics was always divisive.”
Helms made his last political appearances in 2004 at a campaign stop for Republican Senate candidate Richard Burr. In an Eastern North Carolina tobacco barn, the former senator leaned on a walker and the supportive arms of aides. He suffered from peripheral neuropathy, a nerve disease that left him with little feeling in his legs and feet.
His voice that day was halting. It was in stark contrast to the one that long dominated N.C. politics.
Helms' political baptism came in 1950.
He was broadcasting editorials for Raleigh's WRAL radio. He was summoned to the capitol, where Gov. Kerr Scott and U.S. Sen. Frank Porter Graham waited. Graham, a former University of North Carolina president, asked Helms to be his spokesman in the upcoming Democratic primary. According to Helms, he declined, and instead backed one of Graham's opponents, lawyer Willis Smith.
The two fought in a runoff marked by charges that Smith supporters used racial smears. One handbill purported to show a photo of Graham's wife dancing with a black man. Smith won, and Helms was often accused of having a hand in the campaign.
“I have always found such charges so repugnant that I chose not to give them the dignity of a response,” Helms wrote in his memoir. “Dr. Graham was a family friend. I never would have been a party to attacks on his character or supported a candidate who stooped to that level.”
Helms went to Washington as an aide to the new senator. When Smith died in 1953, Helms returned to Raleigh and eventually to broadcasting, where his TV editorials gained a following.
During the turbulent '60s, he often talked about civil rights. He called the 1964 Civil Rights bill “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.”
“There is no doubt that Helms was unabashedly an opponent of the civil rights movement,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics at UNC Chapel Hill. “He was indeed an opponent of social and cultural change in the South, including racial change.”
The onetime broadcaster had a commanding voice and a knack for framing complex issues in simple terms that appealed to his supporters. But he always found a way to capture enough moderates to win.
In his last three races – against Gov. Jim Hunt and twice against former Charlotte Mayor Gantt – Helms never got more than 53 percent of the vote. His easiest win came in 1978 against Democrat John Ingram when he got 54.5 percent.
In the GOP, long a minority party, “Senator No” was often a minority of one.
He railed against federal spending, abortion, national funding for the arts and a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he played a major role in U.S. international relations.
Crusading to change the United Nations, he became in 2000 the first lawmaker from any nation to address the body. Even Democrats credited his efforts to push changes in exchange for continued U.S. financial support.
Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson said Helms “probably saved American participation in the U.N.”
His political base
Just as Helms developed an N.C. following through broadcasting, he built a national political base through the mail.
From the early 1970s, his National Congressional Club brought his name and opinions to a national audience as it rallied conservatives against issues such as abortion, liberalism and communism. Its power was not just in the message, but in the medium. Helms was among the pioneers of direct mail.
Letters warned that he and his movement were under assault from the media and “the entire liberal establishment.”
“Many conservative organizations learned about the effectiveness of direct mail by seeing how it was done at the Congressional Club,” he wrote in his memoir.
New Right leader Richard Viguerie, himself a direct mail pioneer, has called Helms “a critical part of that small group of conservatives who built the conservative movement.”
“We had conservative strategy meetings in his office,” Viguerie said Friday. “He was one of us.”
Link, the historian, calls Helms “a central figure in the conservative revolution.”
Helms did something else for the movement: He hastened Ronald Reagan's rise in national politics.
In 1976, the former California governor had lost a strong of primaries to President Ford. Advisers urged him to withdraw. But Helms, with allies Tom Ellis and Carter Wrenn, put their energy and organization to work in North Carolina. Reagan won the primary. Though he lost the nomination, he won the credibility that swept him into the White House four years later.
Helms was usually one of Reagan's strongest allies. But that didn't stop him from criticizing Reagan on some issues and appointments.
“He was kind of our lodestar,” said Viguerie. “He was the one we set our course by. When he was critical of Reagan, it was when Reagan wandered off the conservative reservation.”
Helms' campaigns divided North Carolinians. He used homosexuality, school prayer, race and other “hot-button” issues to draw stark contrasts with opponents.
A 1990 ad accused Democratic opponent Gantt of taking money from gays. In a 1990 campaign ad against Gantt, Helms ran a TV ad that showed white hands crumpling a rejection letter.
“You needed that job,” a narrator said, “but they had to give it to a minority.”
Analysts such as Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, called the hands ad “a textbook illustration of how to play on racial fears,” and said Helms “took targeted, fear-based appeals toward other groups to a new high.”
Helms denied such charges in his memoir.
“There were ... some charges that the ad was intended as ‘racist,' but that was untrue,” he wrote. “Minority classifications were not limited to race, and we had no more interest in a race-based vote than we did in race-based jobs. The campaign was never about Mr. Gantt being black; it was always and only about him being liberal.”
But such tacks made Helms a pariah for Democrats. Liberals used him to raise money for their own causes, just as he used them.
The warm side
Despite his tough politics, admirers saw a warm side to Helms.
In 1962, he and his wife, Dot, read a newspaper story about a 9-year-old cerebral palsy victim named Charles. A short time later they adopted him.
On Capitol Hill, he frequently interrupted his schedule to see young people, even taking them down to the Senate cafeteria for ice cream.
On the night of his first election in 1972, he later wrote, “I made several commitments to my maker ... (One) that I would not fail to meet with any group of young people from North Carolina who wanted to see me.”
It was the little things that some people will remember.
For years every May 22, Helms would call Salisbury's Mary Hanford, one of his earliest supporters, on her birthday. Hanford lived to the age of 102.
“So that was a lot of phone calls,” her daughter, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who won Helms' seat in 2002, said Friday. “He called her ‘Miss Mary.'”
Helms was known for similar gestures in the Senate.
Longtime aide Jimmy Broughton remembers the day Helms was suddenly called to the Senate floor to defend an amendment. As anxious aides pressed him to leave his office, Helms told them he had to make one call. It was to the office of a fellow senator, liberal Democrat Paul Simon of Illinois.
“He needs some air in his left rear tire,” they heard Helms tell Simon's secretary.
But Helms frequently voted against bills that would help the unfortunate. During his first Senate term, he voted against using federal money to help child abuse victims. Time magazine noted the two personas in 1981, saying Helms has “a saint's generosity toward individuals in distress – and a Malthusian indifference to human suffering on a larger scale.”
For years, Helms opposed AIDS funding. He wrote that he saw it as a disease “largely spread by reckless and voluntary sexual and drug-abusing behavior” and confined to homosexuals and drug users.
“I was wrong,” he said in his memoir. “In February, 2002, I said publicly that I was ashamed that I had not done more concerning the world's AIDS pandemic.”
But in his core beliefs, Helms remained consistent.
“Whether you agreed or not, you know where he stood,” Dole said.
Helms often used the media as a target.
When Claude Sitton, editor of Raleigh's News & Observer, retired, Helms sent a gift to his retirement party: a horse.
“This is Jesse,” said a sign hung around the horse's neck. “You been riding Jesse for years. Don't stop now.”
Viguerie remembers a conversation with another conservative activist, Howard Phillips.
“Can you imagine what the Senate would have been like with five or six more Jesse Helms?” Viguerie asked.
“Yes,” Phillips replied. “Or one less.”
Staff writer Tim Funk and former Observer reporter John Monk contributed.