Jesse Helms (1921-2008)

Written By Ronnie W. Faulkner

A reporter, television-radio executive, and U.S. Senator, Jesse Helms was born October 18, 1921, in Monroe, N.C., to Jesse Alexander and Ethel Mae Helms. The Almanac of American Politics labeled the conservative Helms a “Jeremiah” for believing in an imminent doom and warning against the encroaching dangers of big government, communism, and abortion—to name three examples.

As a young man, Helms’s varied careers and experiences introduced him to the world of politics.  He attended Wingate College and Wake Forest College, each for a year; classmates at each school remembered him as a non-political, “clean-living Baptist.”  Helms quit college, however, to pursue journalism, first as a sports proofreader at the Raleigh News and Observer, and shortly afterward, as an editor of Raleigh Times.  Helms married Dorothy Jane Coble in 1942 (they later had three children), and his father-in-law, Jacob L. Coble, spent hours discussing politics whenever the two would meet.  Helms served in the Navy from 1942 to 1945.

After World War II, Helms’s journalistic career soared.  Upon returning to the States, he again worked briefly at Raleigh Times before taking a job at a radio station in Roanoke Rapids.  He returned to Raleigh in 1946, however, to work for WRAL radio, owned by A. J. Fletcher (1887-1979), a fellow conservative, whom Helms loved and respected.  As news director and executive vice-president of WRAL, Helms was the voice of the “Viewpoint Editorial,” a brief daily two-minute program in which he consistently attacked what he called left-leaning professors, liberal politicians, “Red China,” “socialized medicine,” and, among other things, foreign aid and government civil rights policies. Helms also promoted “free enterprise.”

In 1972, Helms switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party.  That year Helms became the first popularly-elected Republican U.S. Senator from N.C. since Jeter C. Pritchard’s term ending in 1903.  Helms’s prior public service consisted only of a term on the Raleigh City Council.  However, the Monroe County native held his Senate seat for thirty years–the longest serving statewide Republican politician in Tar Heel history.

As Senator, Helms practiced a conservatism that either outraged or pleased.  He was labeled “Senator No” by the News and Observer for his tendency to vote against government programs.  But Helms practiced what he preached.  He returned millions that had been allocated for running his office.  It was his mastery of parliamentary procedure that infuriated his colleagues (even Republicans); he routinely forced votes on delicate social issues such as abortion and school busing.

Helms’s leadership style was more than controversial; it was also effective.  Helms’s support of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) for president in the 1976 North Carolina Republican primary has been credited by pundits, including Fred Barnes, as the reason for the California governor’s comeback victory in 1980.  When the Republicans controlled the Senate in 1981 to 1987, Helms chaired the Committee on Agriculture.  When Republicans controlled the Senate during 1995-2001, he chaired the Committee on Foreign Relations.  In this position, he was the most interested and exercised his greatest influence, scaling back the U.S. debt to the United Nations, reforming the State Department, defeating ambassadorial nominations of Liberals, and helping strengthen the embargo against Cuba.

As a former reporter, Helms understood the value of mass media. He relied on direct mail to collect small contributions to build multimillion-dollar war chests for his campaigns, by-passing big contributors interested only in buying influence.  Helms’s toughest campaign was against former Governor James Hunt (1937- ) in 1984.  At over $28 million in expenditures, the 1984 campaign was the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in history until that time.  Centrist politics, which had made Hunt a formidable campaigner, were what defeated him when he challenged Helms.  From the beginning, Helms attacked Hunt as being wishy-washy, and voters once again returned Helms to office.  In 1990 and 1996, Helms ran against Harvey Gantt (1943- ), an African American and former mayor of Charlotte.  The Helms campaign used Gantt’s affirmative action positions to defeat him.  The 1990 campaign, for instance, featured an ad depicting an unemployed white worker crumbling a rejection notice after a minority landed the job.

In his last years in the Senate, Helms’s declining health forced him to use a wheel chair. Announcing he would not seek reelection in 2002, Helms publicly supported Elizabeth Dole (1936- ), who won and became the first woman U.S. Senator from N.C.

Even when retired and in declining health, Helms still held influence and remained active. Political candidates sought his endorsement.  Helms also wrote an autobiography and promoted the Helms Center in Wingate, which houses his correspondence and promotes the principles to which Helms dedicated his life: free enterprise and limited government.  “Senator No” passed away on July 4, 2008.