Jesse Helms was laid to rest Tuesday in a simple, dignified ceremony that emphasized the man more than the conservative force who became both a beloved and despised household name in American politics.
A delegation from Washington – including Vice President Dick Cheney and Cindy McCain, the wife of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain – was among those who crowded into Hayes Barton Baptist Church to pay tribute to the former five-term senator.
Most of the service focused on Helms as a kindly patriarch of his family and his Senate staff and colleagues rather than on the conservative figure who was one of the most feared men in Washington. Senators, former aides and family members talked about the Helms who was a master of constituent services, who was a workaholic, who encouraged young people and who was willing to take unpopular stands.
“Over the years, anybody who passed by his office would remember him as one of the kindest people they ever knew,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a eulogy. “No matter who you were, he always had a gentle word and a kind smile.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The mood of the estimated 900 people in the central Raleigh church was subdued, but not somber. Helms had been out of office for more than five years, and had been in declining health. For many graying Helms supporters and staffers, it was a chance to reminisce about old political battles.
The congregation sang such favorite hymns as “Amazing Grace” and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Crisp Highway Patrolmen were bodyguards to the flag-draped coffin, a portrait of Helms sitting on an easel nearby. After the funeral service, Helms was interred in Oakwood Cemetery.
The service lacked the pomp of some of the larger recent political funerals, including those of Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina or Terry Sanford, a former N.C. governor and senator.
Cheney quietly slipped in and out of the service. The appearance of Cindy McCain, accompanied by Republican Sen. Richard Burr, attracted a lot of attention. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is not a favorite of many Helms-style conservatives.
The front rows of the church were crowded with more than a dozen senators, including Republicans Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
There were also former senators such as Bob Dole of Kansas, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Don Nickles of Oklahoma.
Democrats were among the mourners, including former Senate colleagues Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
“One of the things people fail to realize was how well Sen. Helms was respected in the Senate and on a personal level,” said Tom Boney, a longtime staffer. “They could disagree. There was a certain degree of civility, contrary to the perception that Sen. Helms is often at odds on every issue.”
But the man who last represented North Carolina alongside Helms, Democrat John Edwards, was a no-show. The two had said uncomplimentary things about each other in recent years.
Also crowding the sanctuary were dozens of men and women who once were idealistic young aides to Helms and now are pushing middle age.
Former chief of staff Jimmy Broughton, in a eulogy, read from a memo taken during one of Helms' first staff meetings in 1973. “He wants no bowing and scraping,” the staffer wrote. “He's just a country boy from Union County.”
Mourners contrasted Helms with the image that often appeared in newspaper cartoons and editorials.
“I would never have worked for the man I read about in the editorial pages,” said Broughton, now a lobbyist for the law firm, Womble Carlyle.
There were also Helms' comrades in arms – the movement conservatives who helped make North Carolina a two-party state and who helped engineer the Republican resurgence in national politics that led to the election of President Reagan and the two Bushes. Those included Tom Ellis, the Raleigh lawyer who was Helms' political alter ego, and Charlie Black, the Washington lobbyist and strategist who engineered McCain's political comeback. Missing was Carter Wrenn, a longtime Helms strategist who broke with the senator.
A murmur went through the crowd when Democratic Gov. Mike Easley walked into the sanctuary, accompanied by Erskine Bowles, the University of North Carolina president, who twice ran for the Senate as a Democrat.
Despite the talk of Helms as a kindly, grandfatherly figure, he had a reputation as a political brawler who used racially loaded issues, sexual orientation and other wedge issues to attack his opponents.
It was telling that none of the Democrats whom Helms defeated, including former Gov. Jim Hunt and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, attended the service.
Stelle Snyder of Monroe, who helped write Helms' 2005 memoir, said Helms would have enjoyed the funeral.
“He was so proud of these people, of the Helms Senate family,” she said. “He would be shocked that this country boy from Monroe would have this kind of funeral (in) a church full of dignitaries.”