Longtime Sen. Jesse Helms Was Conservative Purist The five-term North Carolina senator retired in 2003 but left a legacy of strong conservatism — and controversy — in a state that hadn't seen a GOP senator for decades. He has died at the age of 86.
NPR logo

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
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

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

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

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

SIEGEL: 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: 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.

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

SIEGEL: 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: 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.

HOCHBERG: 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: 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)

U: 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.

SIEGEL: 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.

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

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.