Remembering Sen. Jesse Helms Jesse Helms' 30-year career in the U.S. Senate was marked by controversy and racial politics. The fierce advocate for segregation and king maker in North Carolina politics died Friday at the age of 86.
NPR logo

NPR's David Folkenflik talks with Madeleine Brand on 'Day to Day'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92241277/92241264" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Remembering Sen. Jesse Helms

Remembering Sen. Jesse Helms

NPR's David Folkenflik talks with Madeleine Brand on 'Day to Day'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92241277/92241264" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Jesse Helms' 30-year career in the U.S. Senate was marked by controversy and racial politics. The fierce advocate for segregation and king maker in North Carolina politics died Friday at the age of 86.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms died early this morning in Raleigh. He was 86 years old, and he'd been sick for awhile. He died of natural causes, according to his former chief of staff. Jesse Helms served in the Senate for 30 years, from 1973 to the year 2003. NPR's David Folkenflik covered Congress during Helms' later years, in the '90s, and David joins us now from New York. So, Jesse Helms, David, he is known primarily for fighting racial desegregation.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Absolutely. I mean, he's this executive with Capital Broadcasting in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he unleashed one vitriolic, you know, commentary after another against desegregation in the South, and particularly his beloved home, North Carolina. And he pretty much continued, you know, an attack on desegregation, federal involvement in that and related issues like, for example, affirmative action, for the decades that followed.

BRAND: He fought the Voting Rights Act. He fought also all sorts of civil rights legislation.

FOLKENFLIK: That's correct. He really - he was adamant that this was not the place for the federal government, but he also, you know, would articulate his belief in the primacy of Western cultures, you know, stretching back to what he said was the moral law given to Jewish peoples, the law and order established by the Greeks and Romans, and particularly the Anglo-Saxon idea of what he said was limited government. And he stressed this in a way which seemed to say this is a Christian nation, and in fact, in a sense, this should be a white nation.

BRAND: And he also led a filibuster against declaring Martin Luther King Jr. - that a national holiday, right?

FOLKENFLIK: That's absolutely correct. The level of animus that he evinced against the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was strong. He called him a Marxist. He said the federal government should not be recognizing him. And that this was not somebody worthy of enshrining in the pantheon of people after whom we grand federal holidays to.

BRAND: And how effective was he in terms of authoring legislation, of being a legislator?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he is really known for opposing things. So he was anti-abortion. He was anti-the United Nations. He would fight it. He was effective. At one point, he snuck a little clause into a bill that got a funding for the United Nations suspended for a year, because it passed without too much notice, and then it was too tough to get it undone. He fought against a lot of things that he didn't want to have happened or held up a lot of judicial appointments, held up people because they were gay. He felt that it's his job to resist the tide of what he saw as the onslaught of federal liberalism.

BRAND: His last major battle for reelection was against a man named Harvey Gantt in the '90s, an African-American. Tell us about that.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I actually wrote a little bit about that when I was an intern for the News and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, where Gantt was from. Gantt was the first black student at Clemson University in South Carolina. He married the first female black student there, and he became a respected, I believe, architect, and then the first black mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, a relatively progressive city. 1990, Gantt posed a real challenge to Helms, and Helms was not 100 percent clear that he was going to be reelected.

One of the things that's widely believed to have been a turning point was an ad put out by the campaign on television, which showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a rejection letter, and a narrator on - ominously intoning that, you know, we all have seen it happen. You know, somebody - you're better qualified for the job, but somebody gets the job, because he's black. And it tapped into concerns about affirmative action, some insecurities about employment, and turned the tide, and Helms won by just a few slim percentage points.

BRAND: Did Helms ever renounce or regret anything that he did?

FOLKENFLIK: Not when it came to the central issue of the South, which is, of course, race and civil rights.

BRAND: Jesse Helms died today. He was 86 years old, former North Carolina senator. We've been talking about that with NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

BRAND: How to go on a RV trip when gas is so expensive, coming up.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Longtime Sen. Jesse Helms Was Conservative Purist

Longtime Sen. Jesse Helms Was Conservative Purist

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92241325/92246215" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) speaks January 31, 2002, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington, Va. Helms endorsed Elizabeth Dole to succeed him as he retired from the Senate in 2003. Manny Ceneta/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

Then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) speaks January 31, 2002, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington, Va. Helms endorsed Elizabeth Dole to succeed him as he retired from the Senate in 2003.

Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

Funeral Arrangements

A viewing for former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms will be held from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 7 at Hayes-Barton Baptist Church, 1800 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, N.C. Funeral services will be at the church at 2 p.m. July 8. A private burial will follow.
Source: The Jesse Helms Center

North Carolina's Republican Senator-elect Jesse Helms (center) is surrounded by his family after his victory speech at Raleigh, N.C., in this Nov. 8, 1972, photo. Manny Ceneta/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

North Carolina's Republican Senator-elect Jesse Helms (center) is surrounded by his family after his victory speech at Raleigh, N.C., in this Nov. 8, 1972, photo.

Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

Helms In his Own Words

Helms Criticizes 'Perverted' NEA-Funded Art

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92241325/92245047" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Jesse Helms Speaks To Reporters At 1990 News Conference

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92241325/92245046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Helms Declares Victory In 1990 Election

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92241325/92245048" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Jesse Helms, the five-term North Carolina senator who retired in 2003 but left a legacy of strong conservatism — and controversy — in a state that hadn't seen a GOP senator for decades, has died. He was 86 years old.

Shortly after he was elected to the 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.

The Republican reveled in his obstructionist reputation, as his 1990 election-night victory speech illustrates: "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."

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.

"Seldom a day passes by when there's not another lawmaker coming up with some new idea which would further destroy parental authority in our land," he said in a speech kicking off his 1990 re-election campaign. "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?"

From TV Commentator To Senator

Helms' conservative views grew out of his small-town upbringing in Monroe, N.C., 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 aide 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 a dozen 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.

"I was talked into it at a time when no Republican could be elected to any statewide office in North Carolina — never had been, never would be. That was the acknowledged political fact," Helms said in a 1983 interview with NPR. "So I had the luxury of going around the state saying exactly what I believed, and the people apparently agreed with it."

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.

Winning Over 'Dixie-crats'

But perhaps the key to Helms' political success was his ability to cut across party lines and win votes from conservative Democrats — people who once were known as "Dixie-crats" and in North Carolina grew to be called "Jesse-crats."

"He was really a relic in a way," said Ernest Furgurson, who wrote a 1986 biography of Helms. "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."

Indeed, Helms began his career in an era when race was the predominant factor in Southern politics, and Furgurson 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: "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."

Gantt called Helms' 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 the implication. Even though polls suggested Helms' racial quota ads were the key to his winning the 1990 election, the senator denied that he injected race into the campaign.

"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."

A Legacy Of Principles

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 rock star Bono to fight AIDS in Africa.

When asked in the 1983 NPR interview about the political legacy he hoped to leave, Helms, in contrast to his fiery campaign rhetoric, was introspective and modest: "I would like to be remembered as a fella who did the best he could and 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 dialog some things that may not have been introduced otherwise."

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