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

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.

Helms also had a reputation for going for the jugular in a political fight. "He ran negative ads against me for 20 months," said former North Carolina governor James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat who lost to Helms in North Carolina's 1984 Senate election, in a 1990 interview with The Post. "During that time he was able to tear me down and get people to begin to see the race in his terms, Jesse Helms's race."

That strategy included efforts to link Hunt with liberal causes by showing pictures of him with Jesse Jackson and Walter Mondale. It also emphasized Helms's 16-day filibuster against a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In his two final races, in 1990 and 1996, Helms defeated former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in bitterly contested campaigns that attracted national attention. Helms designed his campaigns against the African American Gantt to be about "North Carolina values" vs. "extreme liberal values," and Helms made it clear where he stood.

Helms campaigned against what he described as liberal efforts to give unfair preference in hiring and education to racial minorities. One of his TV ads showed the hand of a white man crumpling a rejection letter as an announcer intoned: "You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority."

The Justice Department admonished his 1996 campaign for civil rights violations after it mailed 125,000 fliers to heavily African American precincts warning that voters risked imprisonment if they cast ballots.

Gantt later said of Helms's effective but divisive tactics: "He does what every little guy who thinks like him would like to do: stand at the gap and keep out the people they think are trying to change things for the worse. Jesse Helms represents exactly that kind of defiance."

Jesse Alexander Helms Jr. was born Oct. 18, 1921, in Monroe, N.C., a small town where his father was police chief. He attended Wingate College and Wake Forest University but left before graduating to work as a sportswriter for the Raleigh News & Observer.

During World War II, he served in the Navy, then returned to journalism as city editor of the Raleigh Times newspaper. In 1948, he joined the staff of Raleigh radio station WRAL, where he became news and program director. He also helped start the North Carolina News Network, a statewide radio system.

Helms's political career began in 1950, when he served as a top campaign aide to Willis Smith, a conservative Raleigh lawyer running for the U.S. Senate. In one of the roughest campaigns in state history, Smith used a series of race-based attacks to defeat University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham in the Democratic primary.

Helms later said he played no major role in the campaign, but others insisted he was its chief architect. In any event, Helms accompanied Smith to Washington as his administrative assistant. Three years later, when Smith died, Helms went back to North Carolina as executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and served two terms on the Raleigh City Council.

In 1960, he returned to the news business as executive vice president of a regional broadcasting company that operated WRAL-TV.

Helms became a household name in North Carolina with his editorials on local news broadcasts. At 6:25 p.m. each night, he broadcast five-minute tirades against the likes of intellectuals, "the so-called civil rights movement," big government, high taxes, student protests and the Kennedys. The commentaries were rebroadcast the next morning and were carried on 70 radio stations, making Helms's observations staples of daily life in North Carolina. A newspaper column he wrote during those years ran in 200 papers.

Originally a Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party in 1970. Two years later, when he upset Democratic Rep. Nick Galifianakis, Helms became the first Republican elected to the Senate from North Carolina in the 20th century.

In the Senate, Helms rose to become chairman of the Agriculture Committee and invoked seniority to push aside Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He was a powerful defender of North Carolina's tobacco industry and used the Foreign Relations Committee as a platform for his anti-communist views.

Helms was a master parliamentary tactician who promoted his conservative agenda by putting holds on bills in committee, stalling nominations and attaching strings to amendments. He was generally more effective at blocking legislation than in getting it passed. He was an early supporter of Reagan, who, after being elected president in 1980, would call Helms "a thorn in my side."

Throughout his career, Helms often took stands that isolated him from the left and the right. In 1990, he refused to attend South African leader Nelson Mandela's speech to a joint session of Congress. He railed against research on AIDS, calling it a disease of homosexuals, but late in his career he co-sponsored a bill to provide $500 million to AIDS sufferers in Africa.

He opposed a 1987 United Nations treaty banning torture and in 1997 blocked President Bill Clinton's nomination of former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld, a liberal Republican, to be ambassador to Mexico.

"I did not come to Washington to win a popularity contest," Helms once said.

During his final term in office, Helms, a longtime smoker, had open-heart surgery and showed the effects of various other illnesses. After leaving office in 2003, he retired to his home state. He had been in a nursing home for the past two years.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Dorothy Coble Helms of Raleigh; three children, Jane Knox of Raleigh, Nancy Grigg of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Charles Helms of Winston-Salem, N.C.; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Bart Barnes is a former Washington Post staff writer.

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