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Jesse Helms, the man whose name became synonymous with social conservatism, died today at the age of 86. During his 30 years as a U.S. senator, the North Carolina Republican distinguished himself with an uncompromising approach. Helms was staunchly anti-communist. He was disgusted by homosexuals. And he opposed civil rights. And though he denied he was racist, Helms often played on the racial fears of white voters to get elected.

Here's NPR's Adam Hochberg on the life of Jesse Helms.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Shortly after Jesse Helms was elected to the U.S. Senate, newspapers in North Carolina gave him a nickname that stuck with him the rest of his political career. They called him Senator No for his habit of voting against government spending, against social programs, and against foreign aid. The nickname was intended to be an insult. But Helms wore it as a badge of honor.

He reveled in his obstructionist reputation, as in this 1990 election night victory speech.

Senator JESSE HELMS (Republican, North Carolina): Eighteen years ago the people of North Carolina elected a United States senator who pledged to say no to the tax and spend liberals in Congress, even when it meant standing alone and saying no alone. And I make this covenant with you tonight: If the liberal politicians think I've been a thorn in their sides in the past, they haven't seen anything yet.

HOCHBERG: In his three decades in the Senate, Helms battled tirelessly for the conservative cause. He waged high-profile fights against the Panama Canal Treaty, AIDS funding, abortion and affirmative action. He was willing to take on his fellow Republicans, criticizing Presidents Reagan and Bush for accepting tax increases in the 1980s and '90s.

But Helms was best known for his steadfast opinions on social issues. He lambasted Hollywood for sex and violence in movies, criticized artists whose work he considered obscene, and berated groups he felt were destroying traditional families.

Sen. HELMS: Seldom a day passes that there's not another lawmaker coming up with some new idea which would further destroy parental authority in our land. Just think about it. Homosexuals, lesbians, disgusting people marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other. And the right to adopt children. How do you like them apples?

HOCHBERG: Helms's conservative views grew out of his small town upbringing in Monroe, North Carolina, where he said he learned the importance of personal responsibility. He began his professional career as a news reporter in the 1940s and spent time as a Senate aid in the '50s. But his rise to prominence began in 1960, when he took a job as a nightly commentator on Raleigh's most popular television station. For 12 years Helms used his TV forum to decry communism, attack the civil rights movement, and espouse conservative values.

By 1972, he was a North Carolina television institution and decided to run for the Senate.

Sen. HELMS: I was talked into it at a time when no Republican could be elected to any state-wide office in North Carolina. Never had been, never would be. That was the acknowledged political fact. So I had the luxury of going around the state saying exactly what I believed. And the people apparently agreed with me.

(Soundbite of rally)

HOCHBERG: Not only did many North Carolina voters agree with Helms, but he attracted the kind of passion from them that was rare for any politician. Conservatives adored him for his unyielding dedication to their cause, while North Carolinians of all political persuasions praised him for his efficient constituent service.

But perhaps the key to Helms's political success was his ability to cut across party lines and win votes from conservative Southern Democrats, people who once were known as Dixiecrats, and in North Carolina, grew to be called Jessecrats. Ernest Ferguson wrote a 1986 biography of Senator Helms.

Mr. ERNEST FERGUSON (Helms Biographer): He was really a relic in a way. He used new techniques - mass mail, fundraising, television - to beat on themes that had been successful for Dixiecrats and segregationists back into the previous century.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, Helms began his career in an era when race was the predominant factor in Southern politics, and Ferguson says the senator continued to campaign on racial issues, even as many other Southern conservatives abandoned the technique.

In 1983, Helms led an unsuccessful fight against the federal Martin Luther King holiday, then used the issue the next year in campaign commercials. In several elections he linked his opponents to Jesse Jackson and to other black leaders. And in 1990, when he ran against Harvey Gantt, an African-American, Helms broadcast this racially tinged TV ad.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is.

HOCHBERG: Gantt that year labeled Helms's tactics racially divisive and asked North Carolina voters to decide for themselves whether Helms was a racist. But as he had throughout his career, Helms bristled at that implication. Even though polls suggested Helms's racial quota ads were the key to his winning the 1990 election, the senator denied that he injected race into the campaign.

Sen. HELMS: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. What am I supposed to do? Ignore everything that involves a black man? That would make me speechless in this campaign. And Mr. Gantt knows how to dish it out, but he can't take it.

HOCHBERG: Helms did mellow a bit toward the end of his Senate career. Slowed by health problems, he grew less feisty, and he surprised many of his critics when he teamed up with the rock star Bono to fight AIDS in Africa. The senator once was asked about the legacy he hoped to leave, and in contrast to his fiery campaign rhetoric, Helms was introspective.

Sen. HELMS: I would like to be remembered as a fellow who did the best he could and who didn't back down when he thought he was right. And if I've done anything, made any contribution, and I don't say that I have, it is that I have introduced into the dialogue some things that may not have been introduced otherwise.

HOCHBERG: Helms did not seek re-election in 2002, and for the last two years of his life, he lived in a convalescence center after being diagnosed with a form of dementia. His family said he died peacefully this morning of natural causes. The White House remembered him today as a great public servant and true patriot.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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