Former Senator Jesse Helms dead at 86


"It's just incredible that he would die on July 4th, the same day of the Declaration of Independence and the same day that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, and he certainly is a patriot in the mold of those great men," said former North Carolina GOP Rep. Bill Cobey.

An iconic figure of the South who let nothing silence the trumpet of his beliefs while in office, Helms had faded from public view as his health declined. He died of natural causes early Friday morning at the Raleigh convalescent home where he had lived for the past several years. "He was very comfortable," said former chief of staff Jimmy Broughton.

The son of a police chief, North Carolina voters first learned of Helms through his newspaper and television commentaries. They were a harbinger of what was to come, as he won election to the Senate in 1972 and rose to become a powerful committee chairman before deciding not to seek a sixth term in 2002.

"Compromise, hell! ... If freedom is right and tyranny is wrong, why should those who believe in freedom treat it as if it were a roll of bologna to be bartered a slice at a time?" Helms wrote in a 1959 editorial.

Compromise, Helms would not.

His habit of blocking nominations and legislation during his first term led his former employer, The News & Observer of Raleigh, to nickname him "Senator No" -- and Helms loved it. He was unafraid of inconveniencing his fellow senators, forcing filibusters before holidays and once objecting to a request by phoning in his dissent from home while watching Senate proceedings on television.

Helms was a polarizing figure, both at home and in Washington. He delighted in forcing roll-call votes that required Democrats to take politically difficult votes on federal funding for art he deemed pornographic, school busing, flag-burning and other cultural issues. Among his first forays into politics was working in 1950 to elect segregationist candidate Willis Smith to the Senate, and he later fought against much of the civil rights movement.

In 1993, when then-President Clinton sought confirmation for an openly homosexual assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Helms registered his disgust. "I'm not going to put a lesbian in a position like that," he said in a newspaper interview at the time. "If you want to call me a bigot, fine."

"When he wrote his book, 'Here's Where I Stand,' I felt no book was needed," said North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who won Helms' seat after he retired in 2002. "(My husband) Bob would say, 'You don't have to look under the table for Jesse. You always knew where Jesse is."'

But Helms wasn't entirely inflexible, especially in his later years in the Senate, where he worked with Democrats to restructure the foreign policy bureaucracy and pay back debts to the United Nations, an organization he disdained for most of his career. After years of clashes with gay activists, he softened his views on AIDS and advocated greater federal funding to fight the disease in Africa and elsewhere overseas, and in doing so, struck up an enduring and unlikely friendship with U2 frontman Bono.

"There was trouble in my band for even having the meeting with the senator," Bono said in a 2008 documentary, recalling the objections of his bandmate, Edge. "And I said, 'It's worse than that, Edge. He's coming to the gig.' He said, 'There's no way Jesse Helms is coming to the U2 show and I said, 'He is."'

At the show, Helms marveled at the U2 fans waving their hands like a field of corn blowing in the wind. "He said, 'I had to turn my hearing aid down, in fact I had to turn it off,"' Bono said.

Helms served as chairman of the Agriculture and Foreign Relations committees at times when the GOP held the Senate majority. He used the posts to protect his state's tobacco growers and other farmers, and placed his stamp on foreign policy with a strident opposition to Communism.

He took a dim view of many arms control treaties, and supported the contras in Nicaragua as well as the right-wing government of El Salvador. He opposed the Panama Canal treaties that then-President Carter pushed through a reluctant Senate in 1977.

As Fidel Castro's fierce critic, Helms helped create legislation in 1996 to strengthen U.S. restrictions against the Caribbean island's communist government. The Helms-Burton law bars the United States from normalizing relations with Cuba as long as Castro or his brother Raul -- who has been president since February -- are involved in the island nation's government.

In his memoirs, Helms made clear that his opinions on other issues had hardly moderated since he left office. He likened abortion to the Holocaust and the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"I will never be silent about the death of those who cannot speak for themselves," he wrote in "Here's Where I Stand."

Helms was born in Monroe on Oct. 18, 1921. He attended both Wingate College and Wake Forest College, but never graduated and went on to serve in the Navy during World War II. He worked as Smith's top staff aide for a time after his election, then returned to Raleigh as executive director of the state bankers association.

Helms became a member of the Raleigh city council in 1957 and got his first public platform for espousing his conservative views when he became a television editorialist for WRAL in Raleigh in 1960. He also wrote a column that at one time was carried in 200 newspapers.

Helms and his wife, Dorothy, had two daughters and a son. They adopted the boy in 1962 after the child, 9 years old and suffering from cerebral palsy, said in a newspaper article that he wanted parents. That story stood out for Dole and others Friday, as they said that for all of Helms' political bombast, he should be remembered first as a considerate and compassionate person.

"He stood by the things that he believed in, and the incredible thing (that) was so wonderful about him is that he never, whether you agreed with him or not on issues, it never affected his personal relationship with you," Cobey said. "He believed he had a right to stand for what he believed in, and he believed you did, too."

As a politician, Helms never lost a race for the Senate -- but never won by much, either. He won the 1972 election after switching parties, and defeated then-Gov. Jim Hunt in an epic battle in 1984 in what was then the costliest Senate race on record. In his last two runs for Senate, he defeated black former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996 by running racially tinged campaigns.

In the first race, a Helms commercial showed a white fist crumpling up a job application, these words underneath: "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority."

"He'll be remembered, in part, for the strong racist streak that articulated his politics and almost all of his political campaigns -- they were racialized in the most negative ways," said Kerry Haynie, a political science professor at Duke University, who noted that unlike George Wallace and Strom Thurmond, Helms never repented for such tactics.

"He was sort of unrepentant until the end," Haynie said.

Helms at times played a pivotal role in national GOP politics -- supporting Ronald Reagan in 1976 in a presidential primary challenge to then-President Ford. Reagan's candidacy was near collapse when it came time for the North Carolina primary. Helms was in charge of the effort, and Reagan won a startling upset that resurrected his challenge.

"It's not saying too much to say that had Senator Helms not put his weight and his political organization behind Ronald Reagan so that he was able to win North Carolina, there may have never been a Reagan presidency," Cobey said. "Most people feel like there would have never been a President Reagan had it not been for Jesse Helms."

Still, even some Republicans cringed when Helms said Clinton -- whom he deemed unqualified to be commander in chief -- was so unpopular he would need a bodyguard on North Carolina military bases. Helms said he hadn't meant it as a threat.

As he aged, Helms was slowed by a variety of illnesses, including a bone disorder, prostate cancer and heart problems, and he made his way through the Capitol on a motorized scooter as his career neared an end. In April 2006, his family announced he had been moved into a convalescent center after being diagnosed with vascular dementia, in which repeated minor strokes damage the brain.

Helms' public appearances dwindled as his health deteriorated. When his memoirs were published in August 2005, he appeared at a Raleigh book store to sign copies, but did not speak.

In an e-mail interview with The Associated Press at that time, Helms said he hoped what future generations learn about him "will be based on the truth and not the deliberate inaccuracies those who disagreed with me took such delight in repeating."

"My legacy will be up to others to describe," he added.

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