Jesse Helms Battled Liberals, Communists

By Whitney Woodward, Associated Press | July 7, 2008 | 8:33 PM EDT

(AP) - Former Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch anti-Communist and conservative, built a 30-year congressional career along the fault lines of racial politics, battling liberals and the occasional fellow Republican.

He died Friday. He was 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 Republican representative Bill Cobey.

Helms died at 1:15 a. m., the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C., said.

"He was very comfortable," said former chief of staff Jimmy Broughton, who added Helms died of natural causes in Raleigh.

Funeral services are planned for Tuesday at Helms' longtime church in Raleigh.

Helms, who first became known to North Carolina voters as a newspaper and television commentator, won election to the Senate in 1972 and decided not to run for 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 that foretold his political style.

Helms -- who deemed former president Bill Clinton unqualified to be America's commander-in-chief -- served as chairman of the Agriculture Committee and Foreign Relations Committees over the years at times when the Republicans held the Senate majority, using his posts to protect his state's tobacco growers and other farmers and place his stamp on foreign policy.

His opposition to Communism defined his foreign policy views. He took a dim view of many arms control treaties, opposed Fidel Castro at every turn, and supported the Contras in Nicaragua as well as the right-wing government of El Salvador. He opposed the Panama Canal treaties that president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, pushed through a reluctant Senate in 1977.

As Castro's fierce critic, Helms helped create legislation in 1996 to strengthen U.S. restrictions against Cuba's government.

Early on, his habit of blocking nominations and legislation won him a nickname of "Senator No." 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.

Helms occasionally opted for compromise in later years in the Senate, working with Democrats on legislation to restructure the

foreign policy bureaucracy and pay back debts to the United Nations, an organization be disdained for most of his career.

And he softened his views on AIDS after years of clashes with gay activists, advocating greater federal funding to fight the disease in Africa and elsewhere overseas.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said few senators could match Helms' reputation. "Senator Jesse Helms was a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in," McConnell said in a statement.

"America lost a great public servant and true patriot today," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

Helms never lost a race for the Senate, but he never won one by much, either, a reflection of his divisive political profile in his native Southern state.

In the 1990s, he twice defeated former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black, in racially tinged campaigns. In the first race, a Helms commercial showed a white fist crumbling up a job application, these words underneath: "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority."

"The tension that he creates, the fear he creates in people, is how he's won campaigns," Gantt said several years later.

Helms also played a role in national Republican politics -- supporting Ronald Reagan in 1976 in a presidential primary challenge to then-president Gerald 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.

During the 1990s, Helms clashed frequently with Clinton. Asked to gauge Clinton's performance overall, Helms said in 1995: "He's a nice guy. He's very pleasant. But . . . (as) Ronald Reagan used to say about another politician, Deep down, he's shallow.' "

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.

Helms' public appearances had 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 make a speech.

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."

Helms clashed with fellow Republicans over the years, and he was unafraid of inconveniencing his fellow senators.

"I did not come to Washington to win a popularity contest," he once said while holding the Senate in session with a stalling tactic that delayed the beginning of a Christmas break.

Helms was born in Monroe, N. C., on Oct. 18, 1921. He attended Wake Forest College in 1941 but never graduated and was in the navy during the Second World War.

He took an active role in North Carolina politics early on, working to elect a segregationist candidate, Willis Smith, to the Senate in 1950. He worked as Smith's top staff aide for a time, 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 also was city editor at the Raleigh Times.

Helms and his wife, Dorothy, had two daughters and a son. They adopted the boy in 1962 after the child, nine years old and suffering from cerebral palsy, said in a newspaper article that he wanted parents.

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