Politics & Government

Letters reveal a cordial, humorous side to Sen. Jesse Helms

6/14/03: Former Sen. Jesse Helms addresses the graduating firefighters from the Monroe Fire Department. Letters to the Observer are a testament to the courtliness of a sometimes curmudgeonly senator and his cordial relations with the publisher of a paper that rarely, if ever, took his side in editorials. .
6/14/03: Former Sen. Jesse Helms addresses the graduating firefighters from the Monroe Fire Department. Letters to the Observer are a testament to the courtliness of a sometimes curmudgeonly senator and his cordial relations with the publisher of a paper that rarely, if ever, took his side in editorials. .

After 35 years, I had a lot of files to sort through as we get ready to leave 600 S. Tryon St. Some I didn’t even know I had.

Take the two manila folders stuffed with aging copies of correspondence between the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, Observer publisher Rolfe Neill and editors whose tenures spanned Helms’ six terms.

The letters, clippings and faxes were artifacts of the pre-digital era, before emails and texts were shot off and deleted with little thought of posterity.

They’re also testament to the courtliness of a sometimes curmudgeonly senator and his cordial relations with the publisher of a paper that rarely, if ever, took his side in editorials. The senator’s letters show flares of frustration. There are clips with scrawled annotations (“CHEAP SHOT!”). There are also flashes of humor.

On both sides, the letters also show an abiding desire to keep a dialogue open. And it’s a much more civil dialogue than we’ve seen lately. Here are some excerpts.

Dec. 17, 1985

(Expressing frustration with another Doug Marlette editorial cartoon.)

Dear Rolfe,

We’re friends and all that, and I have enormous admiration for you. For that reason, I must advise that you risk getting a hernia by straining so mightily to justify the Marlette cartoon …. But no matter, I wish you every continued success – and a joyful holiday season.

April 3, 1989

(Complaining to editor Rich Oppel about the choice of a particular mug shot.)

I don’t particularly relish being viewed as adversarial to the media. And in fact I’m not. But I do object to what appears to be deliberate bias …. (Former Sen.) Sam Ervin and I talked many times about this.

Senator Sam said that he could always tell how various papers felt about his positions … by first looking at the photograph accompanying the news story. If the paper liked his position, a good picture would be used; if not the most unflattering file picture would be selected. (If that is the case, I would assume that some papers don’t like my position on any issue.)

Sept. 17, 1990

(From Oppel, weeks before Helms faced former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.)

Dear Jesse,

On the editorial pages, we’ll disagree with you strongly on some things. Yet, that is no great preoccupation of mine nor of [former editorial page editor] Ed Williams. You and your supporters may have their say on those pages, too. You may regard the Observer as a political adversary, but we do not regard you as a political adversary. We’re not politicians (praise the Lord, for our sake and that of the people); we’re newspaper folks.

Sept. 24, 1990

Dear Rich,

Many thanks for your Sept. 17 letter. After the smoke has settled in November, and I have either been retired or reelected, perhaps it would be useful if I stopped by sometime when I’m in Charlotte and let you feel my horns.

At the moment, I confess to being pre-occupied with a campaign involving The Charlotte Observer’s candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Neither of us is likely to persuade the other, but it’ll be fun to try. Best wishes always – except on Nov. 6.

Sept. 27, 1990

Dear Jesse,

I like the idea of a visit from you so that we may “feel your horns.”… Best wishes to you and Dot and may the wind be always at your back. I hope you get all the votes to which your policies and beliefs entitle you on Nov. 6.

Rich

Nov. 19, 1990

(Helms, to an Observer reader, copied to Oppel)

The guys at the Observer should read my lips: If the editorial writers at the Charlotte Observer could be purchased for what they’re worth, and sold for what they think they’re worth, a sizable dent could be made in paying off the national debt.

May 4, 1993

Dear Rolfe,

I didn’t realize that I was going to receive such a lecture from your surrogate in response to my April 7 letter to you. … Mr. Oppel has been in my office.… I need no lecture from him about how to be civil.

May 4, 1993

(To Oppel, in response to Observer questions about his stand on an Endangered Species act.)

If the Observer’s going to get into this, let’s have a spirited debate – which I trust will be promoted by my responses to your survey. Don’t limit me to a few words in response to questions….

Come by some morning about six o’clock and help me feed my birds both here and when Dot and I are in Raleigh.

May 7, 1993

Dear Sen. Helms,

I’d love to feed the birds with you some morning at 6 o’clock. That time of the day is the very best. If it’s a weekend, though, I’m usually down at Holden Beach endangering some species thereabouts, like king mackerel, wahoo, dolphin etc.

Rich

May 10, 1993

Dear Jesse,

I’ll leave it to you and Rich Oppel to work out your personal relationships. In my dealings with each of you I’ve always found you to be gentlemen.

Rolfe

Nov. 15, 1994

(Helms turns to Latin in alluding to statement from then-Attorney General Mike Easley.)

My dear Rolfe,

…The enclosures may be of interest in as much as an Observer blistered me for ‘grandstanding’ and other outrages….The editorial was based solely on what Easley originally said….

Sursum corda!

Jesse

Nov. 24, 1997

Dear Rolfe,

Will the Charlotte Observer haul out its big black headlines when the Ethics Committee dismisses the frivolous ‘complaint’ which it surely will?...

The poorly written AP story deserved some work by a careful copy editor. It didn’t get it.

Rolfe Neill would not have permitted that story to slip in without major surgery. That’s why you went to the top in the news business!

Jesse

Dec. 26, 1997

(Neill, announcing the end of his 22 years as publisher.)

Dear Jesse,

It must be time for me to retire since I misplaced your November 24 letter and am just discovering it on a messy desk…. I’ve suggested that my successor, Peter Ridder, get to know you on a visit to Washington. He’s a good man and I think the two of you would enjoy one another. He’s a registered Republican!

Rolfe

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