N.C. Senator's Hard-Line Conservatism Helped Craft Republican Social Agenda

In five terms, Jesse Helms attracted a national following, supporting what he called
In five terms, Jesse Helms attracted a national following, supporting what he called "decency, honor and spiritual and moral cleanliness in America." (By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
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By Bart Barnes and Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican senator whose uncompromising conservatism made him one of America's leading crusaders against communism, liberalism, tax increases, abortion, homosexuality, affirmative action and court-ordered busing to integrate schools, died yesterday at Mayview Convalescent Center in Raleigh, N.C. He was 86.

During his final years in the Senate, Helms had heart ailments, prostate cancer and Paget's disease and used a motorized scooter to move through the halls of the Capitol. In 2006, his wife announced that he had vascular dementia.

Helms was a shrewd and powerful politician who won election to five terms in the Senate, beginning in 1972. Sometimes called the patron saint of the new right, he developed a national following and helped set the nation's conservative social agenda. He was a superb political organizer and fundraiser whose early support for Ronald Reagan helped secure a Republican ascendancy that has lasted more than 25 years.

Helms was extraordinarily effective at highlighting issues that would provoke the media and raise the passions of his constituents. He appealed particularly to white, blue-collar, middle-class Americans who rallied to his championing of what he considered the timeless Main Street values of religion and family.

He supported prayer in public schools, free enterprise, a strong military, a balanced budget and what he called "decency, honor and spiritual and moral cleanliness in America."

"Next to Ronald Reagan," Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard in 1997, "Jesse Helms is the most important conservative of the last 25 years."

To his opponents, Helms was divisive, mean-spirited, race-baiting and manipulative. He was a pioneer of negative TV attack ads, which he used frequently and effectively in his political campaigns. In 1989, he drew wide-ranging national support, and derision, for his attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts after it funded works by artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, which Helms considered homoerotic and anti-Christian.

When Helms announced in 2001 that he would retire from the Senate, Washington Post columnist David S. Broder described him as "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country."

Helms's opposition to social change and what he viewed as legislative overreaching led to his nickname of "Senator No," a title he came to relish. He blocked nominations for federal office, withheld funding for the United Nations, opposed gun control and threatened to cancel federal support for arts groups and school busing. A staunch opponent of communism, he sought to isolate Cuban leader Fidel Castro and refused to relent on strict U.S. trade embargoes of Cuba.

In 1977, Helms angrily denounced a treaty advanced by President Jimmy Carter to turn over the Panama Canal to Panama. From 1979 to 1986, over the objections of Republican leaders, Helms used parliamentary ploys to scuttle the SALT II arms limitation treaty, which he said made unwarranted concessions to the Soviet Union.

As a political fundraiser, Helms had few rivals. He controlled a vast and sophisticated enterprise in North Carolina known as the National Congressional Club, which had computerized lists of hundreds of thousands of contributors and a state-of-the-art direct-mail operation that raised millions of dollars for Helms and other conservative candidates. Nearly 70 percent of its regular contributors were from outside North Carolina.

Out on the hustings, Helms was courtly, Southern and unpretentious. He had a folksy, engaging personal style, and many rank-and-file voters saw him as a classic political outsider, unafraid to take unpopular stands in challenging the political establishment. Still, he was never overwhelmingly popular and won all of his elections by relatively narrow margins.

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