WASHINGTON — Jesse Helms, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina who for half a century infuriated liberals with his race-baiting campaign tactics and presidents of both parties with his use of senatorial privilege, died Friday (July 4, 2008).
Sen. Helms, 86, who won election to the Senate five times before retiring in 2003, died early Friday at a nursing home in Raleigh, N.C., according to John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C. A cause of death was not given, but his family said in 2006 that he had been diagnosed with vascular dementia.
In a 52-year political career, Sen. Helms became a beacon for the right wing of American politics, a lightning rod for the left, and, often, a mighty pain for presidents whatever their political leaning.
Ronald Reagan, a friend who could thank Sen. Helms for critical campaign help, once described him as a "thorn in my side." Sen. Helms was known for taking on anyone, even leaders of his own party, who strayed from his idea of ideological purity.
"I didn't come to Washington to be a yes man for any president, Democrat or Republican," he said in 1989.
Perhaps his most visible accomplishments in the Senate came two decades apart. One was a 1996 measure that tightened trade sanctions against the Marxist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The other, a 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, prevented U.S. money from going to international family planning organizations that, in his words, "provide or promote" abortion.
He also introduced amendments to reduce or eliminate funds for foreign aid, welfare programs and the arts.
Sen. Helms opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a commentator and voted against its reauthorization once in the Senate. He notoriously registered his disgust in 1993 when President Bill Clinton nominated an openly gay woman to serve at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "I'm not going to put a lesbian in a position like that," Helms said at the time. "If you want to call me a bigot, fine."
"He was a master at manipulating the politics of fear to his advantage, quite skillfully," said Kerry Haynie, a political science professor at Duke University.
Sen. Helms saw himself as a simple man — he even used the word "redneck" to describe himself — who protected simple American values from the onslaught of permissiveness, foreign influence and moral relativism. For 30 years he cut a familiar figure on the Senate floor, typically wearing horn-rimmed glasses, black wing tip shoes and, on the lapels of his gray suits, American flag and Free Masonry pins.
"He was a very polarizing politician," said Ferrell Guillory, a veteran North Carolina journalist. "He was not a consensus builder. He didn't want everybody to vote for him. He just wanted enough."
But as tough as he could be in the political theater, Sen. Helms could exhibit a softer, warmer, even impish side in his personal dealings, even with political adversaries. In 1963, after 21 years of marriage, Sen. Helms and his wife, Dorothy, adopted a disabled child, Charles, after they read a newspaper article in which the child, who was 9 at the time, plaintively said that he wanted a mother and father for Christmas.
A registered Democrat in the years before he ran for the Senate in 1972, Sen. Helms was not the only Southerner of his generation to defect to the Republicans after his party championed the cause of civil rights and, as he put it, "veered so far to the left nationally."
But Sen. Helms will be remembered as different from his contemporaries in that he was unyielding on issues that were important to him. Unlike other conservatives, such as Mississippi's Sen. Trent Lott or Georgia's former Rep. Newt Gingrich, who fought for their causes but found ways to reach accord with Democrats, Sen. Helms seldom gave in.
"Compromise, hell!" Sen. Helms, who acquired the nickname Senator No, wrote in 1959.
Unlike other symbols of segregation — such as Alabama's Gov. George Wallace and South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond — Sen. Helms held firm. He rarely reached out to black voters, who in the 2000 census represented nearly 25 percent of North Carolina's population.
The key to Sen. Helms' longevity was a political strategy that allowed him to win election without appealing to the mainstream. The use of direct mail to solicit campaign funds nationally was pioneered in the 1960s, but Sen. Helms perfected the approach. He sought campaign contributions from conservatives nationally, then used their money to air inflammatory advertisements. "He needed the white vote to win," said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University. "To get that, he had to use explicit racial themes. His was a kind of primitive conservatism."
Because of Sen. Helms, several major treaties never became law: the Kyoto Protocol against global warming, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the proposed land mine treaty — all were stopped at his insistence.
Information from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.