Jesse Helms Recalled as Waging the 'Good Fight'

Hundreds remembered the life and work of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms Tuesday at his funeral service in Raleigh. The five-term Republican died on the Fourth of July. Video by AP
By Sylvia Adcock and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C., July 8 -- Jesse Helms, whose 30-year Senate career helped redefine conservatism, was remembered Tuesday as a gracious friend and formidable foe during a funeral service that packed a Baptist church and drew such dignitaries as Vice President Cheney and Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

The Rev. Tom Bodkin of Hayes Barton Baptist Church, an imposing red-brick edifice where the Helms family worshiped for decades, asked those in attendance to remember the former senator's "service to God and country." When he read a Scripture passage chosen by the family that included the words "I have fought the good fight," murmurs of approval rippled through the crowd.

The homage crossed party lines, with Democrats Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) among a delegation of senators that flew to Helms's home state to pay respects. They and another Democrat, Gov. Mike Easley, did not speak at the service.

Those who did generally skirted Helms's often-divisive politics, instead focusing on him as a patriot, kindhearted boss and doting grandfather.

After an organ prelude of "America the Beautiful," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stood near the flag-draped coffin and told the gathering of 1,200 that other senators would get testy when they found the "senators only" elevator at the Capitol full of North Carolina tourists, the recipients of Helms's largess. McConnell said he learned in the Senate that people often differ wildly from their public personas. "No one seemed to suffer more from this peculiar disconnect," he said, "and no one seemed to care less about it than Senator Helms."

But while mourners in North Carolina paid tribute to the conservative icon, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill grappled with Helms's legacy -- often racially charged and geared toward a hard-edged patriotism that some felt bordered on xenophobia.

"He was a symbol of a part of our past, so maybe we're turning a page here," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), who managed the 1990 Senate campaign of a black Democrat, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt. In a tight race with Gantt, Helms launched an ad campaign in the final days that showed a pair of white hands opening a job rejection letter as a narrator said the job went to "a minority" because of affirmative action programs.

Helms was often grouped with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the former segregationist who along with Helms retired in 2002. But Thurmond repudiated his decades of effort at blocking civil rights legislation and controversial statements about African Americans, an open recanting that Helms did not do.

"Different guys," said Biden, who was Thurmond's eulogist in 2003. "Jesse was harder-edged and took a lot longer to come around. And I'm not sure how much he came around on race."

Helms's most lasting impact inside the chamber was perhaps on global diplomacy, having served as the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee for his last 16 years in the Senate.

He was a master at blocking legislation in his committee, particularly bills or nominations he believed would surrender U.S. sovereignty to international bodies. By the mid-1990s, Helms had effectively blocked, among other things, more than $1 billion in U.S. funding to the United Nations, a treaty banning chemical weapons and the nomination of former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld (R) to become ambassador to Mexico.

But, over several years of negotiating, Helms did allow several key pieces of legislation to move to the floor, most significantly, according to Biden and others, was a huge infusion of money to the United Nations and to the global fight against AIDS.

At the funeral, much was made of Helms's death at the age of 86 on the Fourth of July. "Hearing of his death early Friday, I couldn't help chuckling that it likely ruined the vacation plans of some of the big city editors he loved to tangle with," said Jimmy Broughton, a former Helms staffer.

Claude Sitton, a former editor of the News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh, said in an interview that he had many disagreements with Helms. "But I always thought he practiced what he preached. Not my views, but his. As far as I know, he never had his hand in the public till," said Sitton, who is retired and lives in Oxford. Ga.

Among the mourners was Sylvia O'Kelley, who described herself as a liberal Democrat. She said she came to the funeral because she played piano for the men's Bible study that Helms attended for years, not because she agreed with his beliefs.

"I learned what he would say from the podium, and many times I was outraged," she said. "It's hard for me to say that he is the most influential politician this state has had in the 20th century. I wish it were different, but it was not."

Kane reported from Washington.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company