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Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr. (October 18, 1921–July 4, 2008) was a five-term Republican United States Senator from North Carolinamarker who served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001. Helms was a leader of the modern conservative movement, and he helped start the conservative resurgence, rescuing Ronald Reagan's political career before his presidency, but was known for confronting anyone that strayed from his own conservative convictions.

A journalist by trade, Helms was the longest-serving popularly-elected Senator in North Carolina history and was widely credited with shifting the one-party state dominated by the Democrats into a competitive two-party state. The Helms-controlled National Congressional Club's state-of-the-art direct mail operation raised millions for Helms and other conservative candidates allowing Helms to outspend his opponents in most of his campaigns. He was praised for his ability to connect complicated ideas on a level that spoke to ordinary people.

He was perhaps the last unreconstructed Southern conservative that started his political career in the Democratic Party when that party symbolized racial segregation and transitioned in the early 1970s to being a Republican. Helms was an outspoken conservative who opposed many progressive policies regarding race such as school integration, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Helms also reminded voters that he tried, with a 16-day filibuster, to stop the Senate from approving a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Helms was credited even by his most vociferous opponents with providing excellent constituent services through his Senate office.

Helms was also a 'master obstructionist', and a self-described 'redneck' who relished his nickname, 'Senator No'. He opposed, at various times, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, affirmative action, tax increases, abortion, foreign aid, communism, and government support for modern art with nudity. Helms brought 'an aggressiveness' to his conservatism, like his rhetoric against homosexuality, and employed racially charged language in his campaigns and editorials. He combined this with cultural, social and economic conservatism which often helped his legislation win overwhelming support. He was an icon of conservatism in the United States respected for his steadfastness of convictions; he 'never apologized' for his past views on most of these issues, with the exception of the AIDS pandemic.

Childhood and education (1921 – 1940)

Helms was born in Monroe, North Carolinamarker, where his father, called 'Big Jesse', served as both chief of police and fire chief. His mother, Ethel Mae Helms, was a housewife.

Helms briefly attended Wingate Junior College, now Wingate University, near Monroe, before leaving for Wake Forest College He dropped out after a year to begin a career as a journalist, working for the next 11 years as a newspaper and radio reporter: first as a sportswriter and news reporter for The News & Observer, and also as assistant city editor and city editor for The Raleigh Times. Helms met Dorothy "Dot" Coble, editor of the society page at the The News & Observer, and they married in 1942. Helms first interest in politics came from conversations with his father-in-law, who was a conservative.

Early career (1940 – 1972)

Helms's first full-time job after college was as a sports reporter with The Raleigh Times. During World War II, Helms served stateside as a recruiter in the United States Navy. In 1945, his first child, Jane, was born. After the war, he pursued his twin interests of journalism and politics (at that time, within the Democratic Party). Helms became the city news editor of The Raleigh Times, and later moved to radio and television.

Entry into politics

In 1950, Helms 'played a critical role as campaign publicity director for segregationist Willis Smith' in the U.S. Senate campaign against 'the most renowned Southern liberal Frank Porter Graham'. Graham, who supported school desegregation, was labelled by Smith (a conservative Democratic lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association) as a 'dupe of communists' and a proponent of the 'mingling of the races', as a played out on fliers including the phrase 'Wake Up, White People' in the virtually all-white Democratic primaries. After winning the election, Smith hired Helms to be his administrative assistant in Washington, D.C.marker.

In 1952, Helms worked on the segregationist presidential campaign of Georgiamarker Senator Richard Russell. After Russell dropped out of the presidential race, Helms returned to working for Smith, who died the following year. Helms returned to Raleigh and, from 1953 to 1960, was executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association. He set up a home on Caswell Street in the Hayes Barton Historic District, where he lived until he died.

In 1957, Helms won his first election for a Raleigh City Council seat, and served two terms and earned a reputation as a conservative gadfly who 'fought against everything from putting a median strip on Downtown Boulevard to an urban renewal project'. In 1960, Helms worked on the unsuccessful primary gubernatorial campaign of I. Beverly Lake, Sr., who ran on a platform of racial segregation. The U.S Supreme Courtmarker had recently handed down the Cooper v. Aaron decision insisting on the dismantling of segregated school systems, and that, combined with the lunch-counter demonstrations in Greensboro, compelled him to run. Lake lost to Terry Sanford, who ran as a racial moderate willing to implement the federal policy of school integration. Helms felt forced busing and forced racial integration caused animosity on both sides and were 'proved to be unwise'.

Capital Broadcasting Company

In 1960, Helms joined the Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC) as the executive vice-president, vice chairman of the board, and assistant chief executive officer. His daily CBC editorials on WRAL-TVmarker, given at the end of each night's local news broadcast in Raleigh, made Helms famous as a conservative commentator throughout eastern North Carolina.

Helms's editorials featured folksy anecdotes interwoven with conservative views against, amongst others, 'the civil rights movement, the liberal news media, and anti-war churches'. He referred to The News and Observer, his former employer, as the "Nuisance and Disturber" for its promotion of liberal views. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillmarker, which had a reputation for liberalism, was also a frequent target of Helms's criticism. He suggested a wall be erected around the campus to prevent the university's liberal views from 'infecting' the rest of the state. Helms said the civil rights movement was infested by communists and 'moral degenerates', and described Medicaid as a 'step over into the swampy field of socialized medicine'.

On the 1963 civil rights protests, Helms stated, "The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that's thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men's rights." He later wrote, "Crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced".

Although his editorials created controversy, they also made him popular with conservative voters, helping him to win re-election to the Raleigh City Council. He served for four years. He was at Capitol Broadcasting Company until he was elected to the Senate in 1972.

Senate campaign of 1972

Helms celebrating the 1972 victory, the first of five successive Senate wins.
Helms announced his candidacy for a seat in the United States Senate in 1972. His campaign was managed by Thomas F. Ellis who would later be instrumental in Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign and also become the chair of the National Congressional Club. He won the Republican primary in the first round, winning 92,496 votes, or 60.1%, in a three-candidate field. Meanwhile, Democrats retired the ailing Senator B. Everett Jordan, who lost his primary to Congressman Nick Galifianakis, a Greek American, who represented the 'new politics' of the young, African-Americans, and the anti-establishment, based around the urban Piedmont Triad Although Galifianakis was a 'liberal' by North Carolina standards, he opposed busing.

Polls put Galifianakis well in front of Helms until late in the campaign, but Helms's tactic of associating his opponent with the unpopular Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, closed it. Helms employed the slogans 'McGovernGalifianakis - one and the same' and 'Nixon Needs Helms', whilst Galifianakis avoided mention of his party's nominee. Helms secured the active campaigning support of a number of conservative Democrats alienated by Galifianakis's campaign. Galifianakis, for his part, pointed to Helms's earlier open criticism of Nixon for being too left-wing. Helms also used the slogan 'Vote for Helms — He's One of Us!', although it is disputed as to whether this referred to Galifianakis's Greek ancestry, to his putative untrustworthiness, or to his liberalism.

In a taste of things to come, money poured into the race from outside the state, with Helms spending $654,000 in total, and outspending Galifianakis 3-to-1 in the last six weeks of the campaign. In a year marked by Democratic gains in the Senate, Helms won, polling 54 percent to Galifianakis's 46 percent, and became the first Republican senator from that state since 1903: before senators were directly elected. Helms was helped by Richard Nixon's gigantic landslide victory in that year's presidential election; Nixon carried North Carolina by 41 points and won 98 of the state's 100 counties.

First Senate term (1973 – 1979)

Entering the Senate

Helms quickly became a 'star' of the conservative movement, and was particularly vociferous on the issue of abortion. In 1974, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, Helms introduced a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited abortion in all circumstances, by conferring due process rights upon every fetus. However, the Senate hearing into the proposed amendments heard that neither Helms's, nor James L. Buckley's similar amendment, would achieve their stated goal, shelving them for the session. However, both Helms and Buckley proposed amendments again in 1975, with Helms's allowing states leeway in their implementation of an enshrined constitutional 'right to life' from the 'moment of fertilization'.

Helms was also prominent as a champion of free enterprise, and favoured cutting the budget. He was a strong advocate of a global return to the gold standard, which he would push at numerous points throughout his Senate career; in October 1977, Helms proposed a successful amendment that allowed United States citizens to sign contracts linked to gold, overturning a 44-year ban on gold-indexed contracts, reflecting fears of inflation. Helms was a supporter of the tobacco industry, which contributed over 6% of the state's GSP until the 1990s (the highest in the country), arguing that price support programs should be maintained, as they did not constitute a subsidy but insurance. Hubert Humphrey once said, "I'll trade Jesse Helms his tobacco vote for my wheat support any day." Tobacco companies such as R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris had supported him, both directly and through donations to the Jesse Helms Center.

Foreign affairs

From the start, he marked himself out as a prominent anti-communist. He proposed an act in 1974 that authorized the President to grant honorary citizenship to Sovietmarker dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He remained close to Solzhenitsyn's cause, and linked his fight to that of freedom throughout the world. In 1975, as North Vietnamese forces approached Saigon, he was foremost amongst those urging an evacuation of all Vietnamese demanding evacuation, which he believed could be 'two million or more within seven days'. When the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to suppress a report critical of the US's strategic position in the arms race, Helms read the entire report out, requiring it to be published in the Congressional Record.

Helms was not originally a supporter of Israel, proposing in 1973 a resolution demanding Israel return the West Bankmarker to Jordanmarker, and, in 1975, demanding that the Palestinian Arabs receive a 'just settlement of their grievances'. In 1977, Helms was the sole senator to vote against prohibiting American companies from joining the Arab League boycott of Israel, although this was primarily because the bill also relaxed discrimination against communist countries. In 1982, Helms even called for the US to break diplomatic relations with Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War. He favoured prohibiting foreign aid to countries that had recently detonated nuclear weapons: aimed squarely at Indiamarker, but also affecting Israel should it conduct a nuclear test. He then worked to support the supply of arms to the United States' Arab allies under Carter and Reagan, until his views on Israel changed dramatically in 1984.

1976 presidential election

Helms supported Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination in 1976, even before Reagan had announced his candidacy, and his contribution was crucial in the North Carolina primary victory that paved the way for Reagan's presidential election in 1980. The support of Helms, alongside Raleigh-based campaign operative Tom Ellis, was instrumental in Reagan winning the North Carolina primary and later presenting a major challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention. According to author Craig Shirley, the two men deserve credit 'for breathing life into the dying Reagan campaign'. Going into the primary, Reagan had lost all the primaries, including in New Hampshire, where he had been favored, and was two million dollars in debt, with a growing number of Republican leaders calling for his exit. The Ford campaign was predicting a victory in North Carolina, but assessed Reagan's strength in the state simply: Helms's support. Whilst Ford had the backing of Governor James Holshouser, the grassroots movement formed in North Carolina by Ellis and backed by Helms delivered an upset victory by 53% to 47%. The momentum generated in North Carolina carried Ronald Reagan to landslide primary wins in Texasmarker, Californiamarker, and other critical states, evening the contest between Reagan and Ford, and thus forcing undeclared delegates to choose at the 1976 convention.

Later, Helms was not pleased by the announcement that Reagan would ask the 1976 Republican National Convention to, if nominated, make moderate Pennsylvaniamarker Senator Richard Schweiker his running mate for the general election, but kept his objections to himself at the time. According to Helms, after being told by Ronald Reagan of the decision, he noted the hour because, "I wanted to record for posterity the exact time I received the shock of my life." Helms and Strom Thurmond tried to make Reagan drop Schweiker for a conservative, perhaps either James Buckley or his brother William F. Buckley, and rumors surfaced that Helms might run for Vice-President himself, but Schweiker remained. In the end, Reagan lost narrowly to Ford, whilst Helms received only token support at the Convention for the Vice-Presidential nomination, albeit enough to place him second, far behind Ford's choice of Bob Dole. Nonetheless, the platform adopted was a broadly conservative one, and the conservative faction came out acting like the winners: except Jesse Helms.

Helms vowed to campaign actively for Ford across the South, regarding the conservative platform adopted at the Convention to be a 'mandate' on which Ford was pledging to run. However, he did target Henry Kissinger, demanding that he embrace the platform or resign immediately, after Kissinger issued a statement calling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a 'threat to world peace'. Helms continued to back Reagan, and the two remained close friends and political allies, although not uncritical ones, throughout Reagan's political career. Despite Reagan's defeat at the convention, the intervention of Helms and Ellis arguably led to the most important conservative primary victory in the history of the Republican Party. This victory enabled Reagan to contest the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination, and later to win the next nomination at the 1980 Republican National Convention and ultimately Presidency of the United States.

According to Craig Shirley,

Torrijos–Carter Treaties

Helms was a long-time opponent of transferring possession of the Panama Canalmarker to Panamamarker, calling its construction an 'historic American achievement', and warned that it would fall into the hands of Omar Torrijos's 'communist friends'. It had appeared as an issue in the 1976 presidential race, wherein then-President Ford suspended negotiations over the transfer of sovereignty to assuage conservative opposition. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter reopened negotiations, appointing Sol Linowitz as co-negotiator without Senate confirmation, and Helms and Strom Thurmond led the opposition to it. Helms claimed that Linowitz's involvement with Marine Midland constituted a conflict of interests, arguing that it constituted a bailout of American banking interests, and brought two federal suits, demanding prior congressional approval of any treaty and then consent by both houses of Congress. Helms also rallied Reagan, telling him that negotiation over Panama would be a 'second Schweiker' as far as his conservative base was concerned.

When Carter announced, on 10 August 1977, the conclusion of the treaties, Helms declared it a constitutional crisis, cited the need for the support of America's allies in Latin America, accused the US of submitting to Panamanian blackmail, and complained that it threatened national security in the event of war in Europe. Helms threatened to obstruct Senate business, proposing two hundred amendments to the revision of the United States criminal code, knowing that most Americans opposed the treaties and would punish congressmen that voted for them if the ratification vote came in the run-up to the election. Helms announced the results of an opinion poll showing 78% public opposition, but Helms's and Thurmond's leadership of the cause made it politically easier for Carter, causing them to be replaced by the softly-spoken Paul Laxalt.

1978 re-election campaign

Helms began campaigning for re-election in February 1977, allowing him to campaign actively for fifteen months by the time of the primaries. Whilst Helms faced no primary opponent, the Democrats nominated Commissioner of Insurance John Ingram, who came from behind in the first round of the primary to win in the run-off. Ingram was known as an eccentric populist and employed low-budget campaigning, just as he had to win in the primary, when he campaigned almost exclusively on the issue of insurance rates and against 'fat cats and special interests', in which he included his main primary opponent. Having been one of three senators given a 100% rating by the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action for 1977, and ranked fourth-most conservative by others, the Democratic National Committee targeted Helms, as did President Carter, who visited North Carolina twice on Ingram's behalf.

Over the long campaign, Helms raised $7.5m, over twice as much as the second most-expensive nation-wide (John Tower's in Texasmarker), thanks to Richard Viguerie and Alex Castellanos's pioneering direct mail strategies. However, it was estimated that at least $3m of Helms's spent was on raising the funds. Nonetheless, Helms easily outspent Ingram, who spent $150,000, several times over. Helms was forced to suspend campaigning for six weeks in September and October, due to a punctured lumbar disc. In a low-turnout, Helms received 619,151 votes (54.5%) to Ingram's 516,663 (45.5%). Celebrating his victory, Helms told his supporters that it was a 'victory for the conservative and the free enterprise cause throughout America', adding, "I'm Senator No and I'm glad to be here!"

Second Senate term (1979 – 1985)

New Senate term

On 3 January 1979, the first day of the new Congress, Helms once again introduced a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion, on which he now led the conservative Senators. Senator Helms was one of several Republican senators who in 1981 called into the White House to express his discontent over the nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court; the opposition hinged over the issue of O'Connor's presumed unwillingness to overturn Roe v. Wade. Helms was also the Senate conservatives' leader on school prayer. An amendment proposed by Helms allowing voluntary prayer was passed by the Senate, but died in the House committee. To that act, Helms also proposed an amendment banning sex education without written parental consent. In 1979, Helms supported, along with Democrat Patrick Leahy, a federal Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

He joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, being one of four Carter-critical voices new to the committee. Leader of the pro-Taiwanmarker congressional lobby, Helms demanded that the People's Republic of Chinamarker reject the use of force against the Republic of Chinamarker, but, much to his shock, the Carter administration did not ask them to rule it out.

Helms also criticised the government over Zimbabwe Rhodesia, leading support for the Internal Settlement government in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, under Abel Muzorewa, and campaigned along with Samuel Hayakawa for the immediate lifting of sanctions on his government and complaining of the inconsistency of lifting them on Uganda immediately after Idi Amin's departure, but not Zimbabwe Rhodesia after Ian Smith's. Helms hosted Muzorewa when he visited Washington and met with Carter in July 1979, and sent two aides to the Lancaster House Conference because he didn't 'trust the State Department on this issue', thereby provoking Britishmarker diplomatic complaints. One of the aides, John Carbaugh, was accused of encouraging Smith to 'hang on' and take a harder line and implying that there was enough support in the Senate to lift sanctions without a settlement. Helms introduced legislation that demanded immediate lifting of the sanctions; as negotiations progressed, Helms complied more with the administration's line, although Ted Kennedy accused Carter of conceding the construction of a new aircraft carrier in return for Helms's acquiescence on Zimbabwe Rhodesia, which both parties denied. Helms's support for lifting sanctions on Zimbabwe Rhodesia may have been grounded in North Carolina's tobacco traders, who would have been the main group benefitting from unilaterally lifting sanctions on tobacco-exporting Zimbabwe Rhodesia.

1980 presidential election

In 1979, Helms was touted as a potential contender for the Republican nomination for the 1980 presidential election, but had poor voter recognition and the he lagged far behind the front-runners. He was the only candidate to file for the New Hampshire Vice-Presidential primary. Going into 1980, he was suggested as a potential running mate for Reagan, and he said he'd accept if he could 'be his own man', and was one of three conservative candidates running for the nomination. However, his ideological agreement with Reagan risked losing moderates' votes, particularly due to the independent candidacy of John B. Anderson, and the Reagan camp was split: eventually designating George H. W. Bush as his preferred candidate. At the convention, Helms toyed with the idea of running for Vice-President despite Reagan's choice, but let it go in exchange for Bush endorsing the party platform and an address to the convention. As expected, Helms was drafted by conservatives anyway, and won 54 votes, coming second. Helms was the 'spiritual leader of the conservative convention', and led the movement that successfully reversed the Republican Party's 36-year platform support for an Equal Rights Amendment.

In the fall of 1980, Helms proposed another bill denying the Supreme Courtmarker jurisdiction over school prayer, but this found little support in committee, under the weight of opposition from mainline Protestant churches, and its counterpart was defeated in the House. Senators Helms and James A. McClure blocked Ted Kennedy's comprehensive criminal code that did not relax federal firearms restrictions, inserted capital punishment procedures, and reinstated current statutory law on pornography, prostitution, and drug possession. Following from his success at reintroducing gold-indexed contracts in 1977, in October 1980, Helms proposed a return to the gold standard, and successfully passed an amendment setting up a commission to look into gold-backed currency. After the presidential election, Helms and Strom Thurmond sponsored a Senate amendment to a Department of Justicemarker appropriations bill denying the department the power to participate in busing, due to objections over federal involvement, but, although passed by Congress, was vetoed by a lame duck Carter. Helms pledged to introduce an even stronger anti-busing bill as soon as Reagan took office.

Republicans take the Senate

In the 1980 Senate election, the Republicans unexpectedly won a majority, their first in twenty-six years, including John Porter East, a social conservative and a Helms protégé soon dubbed 'Helms on Wheels', winning the other North Carolina seat. Howard Baker was set to become Majority Leader, but conservatives, angered by Baker's support for the Panama treaty, SALT II, and the Equal Rights Amendment, had sought to replace him with Helms until Reagan gave Baker his backing. Although, it was thought they'd put Helms in charge of the Foreign Relations Committee instead of the liberal Charles Percy, he instead became chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee in the new Congress.

The first six months of 1981 were consumed by numerous Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearings, which were held up by Helms, who believed many of the appointees too liberal or too tainted by association with Kissinger, and not dedicated enough to his definition of the 'Reagan program': support for South Africa, Taiwan, and Latin American right-wing regimes (as opposed to Black Africa and 'Red' China), and active defence of human rights. These nominations included Alexander Haig, Chester Crocker, John Louis, and Lawrence Eagleburger, all of whom were confirmed regardless, whilst all of Helms's candidates, were rejected. Helms also, unsuccessfully, opposed the nominations of Caspar Weinberger, Donald Regan, and Frank Carlucci. However, he did score a notable coup two years later, when he led a small group of conservatives to block the nomination of Robert T. Grey for nine months, and thus causing the firing of Eugene Rostow.

Economic policy

An opponent of the Food Stamp Program, Helms had already voted to reduce its scope, and was determined to follow this through as chairman, proposing a 40% cut in their funding. Instead, Helms supported the replacement of food stamps with workfare. The position also gave Helms, the foremost proponent of the gold standard, a loud voice, as the Agriculture committee had wide powers over commodity markets. During the budget crisis of 1981, Helms restored $200m for school lunches by cutting foreign aid instead, and against increases in grain and milk price support, despite the importance of the dairy industry to North Carolina. He warned repeatedly against costly farm subsidies as chairman. However, in 1983, he used his position to lobby to use the country's strategic dairy and wheat stocks to subsidise food exports as part of a trade war with the European Union. Helms heavily opposed cutting food aid to Poland after martial law was declared, and called for the end of grain exports to (and arms limitation talks with) the Soviet Union instead.

In 1982, Helms authored the a bill to introduce a federal flat tax of 10% with a personal allowance of $2,000. He voted against the 1983 budget: the only conservative Senator to do so, and was a leading voice for a balanced budget amendment. With Charlie Rose, he proposed a bill that would limit tobacco price supports, but would allow the transfer of subsidy credits from non-farmers to farmers. He co-sponsored the bi-partisan move in 1982 to extend drug patent duration. Helms continued to pose obstacles to Reagan's budget plans. At the end of the 97th Congress, Helms led a filibuster against Reagan's increase of federal gasoline tax by 5¢ per gallon: mirroring his opposition to Governor Jim Hunt's 3¢ increase in North Carolina's gas tax, but alienating the White House from Helms.

Social issues

Although Helms recognised budget concerns and nominations as predominant, he rejected calls by Baker to move debate on social issues to 1982, with conservatives seeking to discuss abortion, school prayer, the minimum wage, and the 'fair housing' policy. With the new Congress, Helms once again proposed an amendment banning abortion in all circumstances, along with Robert Dornan, and also proposed a bill defining fetuses as human beings, thereby taking it out of the hands of the federal courts, along with Henry Hyde and Romano Mazzoli. More successfully, Helms passed an amendment banning federal funds from being used for abortion unless the woman's life is in danger. His support was key to the nomination of C. Everett Koop as Surgeon General, by proposing lifting the age limit that would otherwise have ruled out Koop. He proposed an amendment taking school prayer out of the remit of the Supreme Court, which was criticised for being unconstitutional; despite Reagan's endorsement, the bill was eventually rejected, after twenty months of dispute and numerous filibusters, in September 1982, by 51-48. Helms and Strom Thurmond sponsored another amendment to prevent the Department of Justice filing suits in defence of federal busing, which he contended wasted taxpayer money without improving education; this was filibustered by Lowell Weicker for eight months, but passed in March 1982.

In 1981, Helms started secret negotiations to end an 11-year impasse and pave the way for desegregation of historically white and historically black colleges in North Carolina. In response to a rival anti-discrimination bill in 1982, he proposed a bill outlawing granting tax-free status to schools that discriminated racially, but allowing schools that discriminate on the grounds of religion to avoid taxes. When the Voting Rights Act came up for amendment in 1982, Helms and Thurmond criticised it for bias against the South, arguing that it made Carolinians 'second-class citizens' by treating their states differently, and proposed an amendment that extended its terms to the whole country, which they knew would bury it. However, it was extended anyway, despite Helms's filibuster, which he promised to lead 'until the cows come home'. In 1983, Helms hired Claude Allen, an African-American, as his press secretary; despite his publicly-aired belief that he was one of the best-liked senators amongst black staff in Congress, it was pointed out that he didn't have any African-American staff of his own, prompting the hiring of the twenty-two year old, who had switched parties when he was press secretary to Bill Cobey in the previous year's campaign.

With John East and John Stennis, Helms led the senatorial opposition to establishing Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday in 1983, attributing his opposition to two associates of King's with communist ties: Stanley Levison and Jack O'Dell. They embarked on a 16-day filibuster, which Helms broke in exchange for a new tobacco bill. However, he then demanded that FBI surveillance tapes allegedly detailing philandering on King's part be released, although Reagan and the courts refused. The conservatives attempted to rename the day 'National Equality Day' or 'National Civil Rights Day', but failed, and the bill was passed. Writing in the Washington Post several years later, David Broder attributed Helms opposition to the MLK holiday to racism on Helms's part.

Latin America

Upon the Republican takeover of the Senate, Helms also became chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, promising to 'review all our policies on Latin America', of which he had been severely critical under Carter. He immediately focused on the escalating civil war in El Salvador, and particularly preventing Nicaraguanmarker and Cubanmarker support for guerrillas in El Salvadormarker. Within hours, the subcommittee approved military aid to El Salvador, and later led the push to cut aid to Nicaragua. Helms was assisted in pursuing the foreign policy realignment by John Carbaugh, whose influence the New York Times said '[rivalled] many of [the Senate's] more visible elected members'.

In El Salvador, Helms had close ties with the right-wing Salvadoranmarker Nationalist Republican Alliance and its leader and death squad founder Roberto D'Aubuisson. Helms said, "If I had found even one credible link between D'Aubuisson and the so-called 'death squads' ... I'd repudiate him instantly." Helms opposed the appointment of Thomas R. Pickering as Ambassador to El Salvador. alleged that the CIA had interfered in the Salvadoran election March and May 1984, in favour of the incumbent centre-left José Napoleón Duarte instead of D'Aubuisson, claiming that Pickering had 'used the cloak of diplomacy to strangle freedom in the night'. A CIA operative testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee was alleged by Helms to have admitted rigging the election, but senators that attended have stated that, whilst the CIA operative admitted involvement, they did not make such an admission. Helms disclosed details of CIA financial support for Duarte, earning a rebuke from Barry Goldwater, but Helms replied that his information came from sources in El Salvador, not the Senate committee.

In 1982, Helms was the only senator who opposed a Senate resolution endorsing a pro-Britishmarker policy during the Falklands War, citing the Monroe doctrine, although he did manage to weaken the resolution's language. Nonetheless, Helms was a supporter of the late Chileanmarker President Augusto Pinochet, who supported the United Kingdom in the Falklands conflict. Helms was steadfastly opposed to the Castro regime in Cuba, and spent much of his time campaigning against the lifting of sanctions. In 1980, he opposed a treaty with Cuba on sea boundary delimitation unless it included withdrawal of the Soviet brigade stationed on the island. The following year, he proposed legislation establishing Radio Free Cuba, which would later become known as Radio Martí.

Korean Air Lines Flight 007

Helms was a member of a congressional delegation flying to Seoulmarker, South Koreamarker, on 31 August 1983 for a celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the United States-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty. He was due to be on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, flying from New York Citymarker, but changed his plans to attend a fundraiser in Dallasmarker, before flying out on KAL 015. Both planes stopped over in Anchoragemarker, Alaskamarker at the same time, allowing the passengers to mingle. Helms invited Representative Larry McDonald, who was on KAL 007, to join him, Representative Carroll Hubbard of Kentucky, and Senator Steve Symms on KAL 015, but McDonald declined. On its way to Seoul, KAL 007 transgressed into Soviet airspace, and was shot down, killing everyone on board, including McDonald. On December 10, 1991 Helms wrote to Boris Yeltsin on the basis of a study he had requested be made by the CIA, asking for information concerning possible survivors to this flight and their locations.

1984 re-election campaign

Half way through Reagan's term, Helms was talked about as a prospective presidential candidate in 1984 in case Reagan chose to stand down after his first time. There was also speculation that Helms would run for the Governorship, being vacated by Jim Hunt. However, the President stood for re-election, and Helms ran once more for his Senate seat – facing Governor Hunt – and becoming the top target amongst the incumbent Senate Republicans.

Unlike in 1978, Helms faced an opponent in the primary, George Wimbish, but won with 90.6% of the vote, while Hunt received 77% in his. During the general election campaign, Hunt accused Helms of having the most 'anti-Israel record of any member of the U.S. Senate'. Helms pledged during the campaign that he would retain his chairmanship of the Agriculture committee.

In the most expensive Senate campaign up to that time, Helms narrowly defeated Hunt, taking 1,156,768 (51.7%) to Hunt's 1,070,488 (47.8%). Helms might not have won had it not been for Ronald Reagan's popularity in the state; Reagan carried North Carolina by 24 points that year.

Third Senate term (1985 – 1991)

In 1989, Helms hired James Meredith, most famous as the first African-American ever admitted to the University of Mississippimarker, as a domestic policy adviser to his Senate office staff. This was met by criticism from some civil rights groups, but Helms countered that by saying he wanted 'the best people, and it doesn't matter what their color is'. Meredith noted that Helms was the only member of the Senate to respond to his offer.

In 1989, Helms successfully lobbied for an amendment to an act protecting disability rights that exempted pedophilia, schizophrenia, and kleptomania from the conditions against which discrimination was barred.

Foreign affairs

Although Helms was returned, and became the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar became its chair, after Helms and the moderate Lugar cut a deal to keep liberals out of top committee posts. Despite pressure to claim the Foreign Relations chair, he kept the Agriculture chair, maintaining his campaign promise.

A 'purge' of the State Department by George Shultz in early 1985, replacing conservatives with moderates, was heavily opposed by conservatives, led by Helms. They unsuccessfully attempted to block the appointment of Rosanne Ridgway, Richard Burt, and Edwin Corr as ambassadors, arguing that Shultz was appointing diplomats that weren't loyal to the President's philosophy, particularly in Latin America. In August, Helms threatened to lead a filibuster against a bill imposing sanctions on South Africa, delaying it until after summer recess.

In early 1986, Panamanian dissident Winston Spadafora visited Helms and requested that the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs hold hearings on Panama. Ignoring Elliott Abrams's request for a softer line towards Panama, Helms – a long-time Noriega critic – agreed, and the hearings uncovered the large degree of leeway that the US government, and particularly the Central Intelligence Agency, was giving Noriega. After the Drug Enforcement Administration encountered opposition from Oliver North in investigating Noriega's role in drugs trafficking, Helms teamed up with John Kerry to introduce an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act demanding that the CIA investigate the Panama Defense Forces' potential involvement. In 1988, after Noriega was indicted on charges including drugs trafficking, a former Panamanian consul general and chief of political intelligence testified to the subcommittee, detailing Panama's compiling of evidence on its political opponents in the United States, including Senators Helms and Ted Kennedy, with the assistance of the CIA and National Security Council. Helms proposed that the government suspend the Carter-Torrijos treaties unless Noriega were extradited within thirty days.

HIV legislation

In 1987, Helms added an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act, which directed the president to use executive authority to add HIV infection to the list of excludable diseases which prevent both travel and immigration to the United States. The ban passed over objections from international public health officials and organizations that noted that this policy runs counter to established World Health Organization and International Red Cross policies. The action was also opposed by the U.S. Public Health Service. Congress restored the executive authority to remove HIV from the list of excludable conditions in the 1990 Immigration Reform Act, and in January 1991, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan announced he would delete HIV from the list of excludable conditions. A letter-writing campaign headed by Helms ultimately convinced President Bush not to lift the ban, and left the United States the only industrialized nation in the world to prohibit travel based on HIV status. The ban remains in effect as of 2008. The travel ban caused the cancellation of the 1992 International AIDS Conference in Boston.

The New York Times stated that Helms was 'bitterly opposed to federal financing of AIDS research and treatment'. Opposing the Kennedy-Hatch AIDS bill in 1988, Helms stated, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy". When Ryan White died in 1990, his mother went to Congress to speak to politicians on behalf of people with AIDS. She spoke to 23 representatives; Helms refused to speak to Jeanne White, even when she was alone with him in an elevator. Despite opposition by Helms, the Ryan White Care Act passed in 1990.

1990 reelection campaign

Helms ran for reelection in a nationally publicized and rancorous campaign against the former mayor of Charlottemarker, Harvey Gantt, in his 'bid to become the nation's only black Senator' and 'the first black elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction'. In the primary, Helms had two opponents, George Wimbish (as in 1984) and another; Helms won with 84.3% of the vote.

Helms aired a late-running television commercial that showed a white man's hands ripping up a rejection notice from a company that gave the job to a 'less qualified minority'; critics claimed the ad utilized subliminal racist themes. The advert was produced by Alex Castellanos, whom Helms would employ until his company was dropped in April 1996 after running an unusually hard-hitting ad.

Helms won the election with 1,087,331 votes (52.5 percent) to Gantt's 981,573 (47.4 percent). In his victory statement, Helms noted the unhappiness of some media outlets over his victory, quoting a line from Casey at the Bat: "There's no joy in Mudville tonight. The mighty ultra-liberal establishment, and the liberal politicians and editors and commentators and columnists have struck out."

Fourth Senate term (1991 – 1997)

In 1994, Helms created a sensation when he told broadcasters Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that Clinton was 'not up' to the tasks of being commander-in-chief, and suggested two days later, on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, that Clinton 'better not show up around here [Fort Bragg] without a bodyguard'. Helms said Clinton was so unpopular and said he hadn't meant it as a threat.

Republican majority

Republicans regained control of Congress after the 1994 elections and Helms became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that role, he pushed for reform of the United Nations and blocked payment of the United States' dues. Helms passed few laws of his own in part because of this bridge-burning style. Hedrick Smith's The Power Game depicts several senators specifically blocking Helms's goals as a result of his intransigence, but nonetheless portrays Helms as a 'devastatingly effective power broker'. Helms vehemently opposed granting Most favoured nation status to Chinamarker, citing human rights concerns.

In a widely publicized incident, Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman in the Senate and the only black Senator at the time, alleged that Helms offended her by singing a racist song. Soon after the Senate vote on the Confederate flag insignia, which opponents saw as an overt symbol of racism, Helms ran into Moseley Braun in an elevator. Helms turned to Senator Orrin Hatch and said, "Watch me make her cry. I'm going to make her cry. I'm going to sing Dixie until she cries." He then proceeded to sing the song about 'the good life' during slavery to Moseley Braun. In 1999, Helms attempted to block Moseley Braun's nomination to be United States Ambassador to New Zealand.

Having attempted, and failed, to block passage of the Ryan White Care Act passed in 1990, Helms tried to block its refunding in 1995, saying that those with AIDS were responsible for the disease, because they had contracted it because of their 'deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct', and claiming that more federal dollars were spent on AIDS than heart disease or cancer, despite this not being borne out by the Public Health Service statistics.

Helms-Burton Act

Soon after becoming the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in February 1995, Helms announced that he wished to strengthen the spirit of the 1992 Torricelli Act with new legislation. Its companion sponsored through the House by Dan Burton of Indianamarker, it would strengthen the embargo against Cuba: further codifying the embargo, instructing United States diplomats to vote in favour of sanctions on Cuba, stripping the President of the option of ending the embargo by executive order until Fidel and Raúl Castro leave power and a prescribed course of transition is followed. The bill also, controversially explicitly overruling the Act of State Doctrine, allowed foreign companies to be sued in American courts if, in dealings with the regime of Fidel Castro, they acquired assets formerly owned by Americans.

Passing the House comfortably, the Senate was far more cautious, under pressure from the Clinton administration. The debate was filibustered, with a motion of cloture falling four votes short. Helms reintroduced the bill without Titles III and IV, which detailed the penalties on investors, and it passed by 74 to 24 on 19 October 1995. A conference committee was scheduled to convene, but didn't until 28 February 1996, by which time external events had taken over. On 24 February, Cuba shot down two small Brothers to the Rescue planes piloted by anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. When the conference committee met, the tougher House version, with all four titles, won out on most substantive points. It was passed by the Senate 74-22 and the House 336-86, and President Clinton signed the Helms-Burton Act into law on 12 March 1996. For years after its passing, Helms criticised the corporate interests that sought to lift the sanctions on Cuba, writing an article in 1999 for Foreign Affairs, at whose publisher, the Council on Foreign Relations, also drew Helms's ire for its softer approach to Cuba.

1996 reelection campaign

In 1996, Helms drew 1,345,833 (52.6 percent) to Gantt's 1,173,875 (45.9 percent). Helms supported his former Senate colleague Bob Dole for president, while Gantt endorsed Bill Clinton. Gantt said several years later, "The tension that he creates, the fear he creates in people, is how he's won campaigns." Although Helms is generally credited with being the most successful Republican politician in North Carolina history, his largest proportion of the vote in any of his five elections was 54.5 percent. In North Carolina, Helms was a polarizing figure, and he freely admitted that many people in the state strongly disliked him: "[The Democrats could nominate Mortimer Snerd and he'd automatically get 45 percent of the vote." Helms was particularly popular among older, conservative constituents, and was considered one of the last 'Old South' politicians to have served in the Senate. However, he also considered himself a voice of conservative youth, whom he hailed in the dedication of his autobiography. Under Helms's banner, many conservative Democrats in eastern North Carolina switched parties and began to vote increasingly Republican.

Fifth Senate term (1997 – 2003)

The summer of 1997 saw Helms engage in a protracted, high-profile battle to block the nomination of William Weld, Republican Governor of Massachusetts, as Ambassador to Mexico: refusing to hold a committee meeting to schedule a confirmation hearing. Although he didn't make a formal statement of his reason, Helms did criticise Weld's support for medical marijuana, which Senate conservatives saw as incompatible with Mexico's key role in the War on Drugs. Weld attacked Helms's politics, saying, "I am not Senator Helms's kind of Republican. I do not pass his litmus test on social policy. Nor do I want to." This opened Helms to counter on Weld's positions on abortion, gay rights, and other issues on which he had a liberal position. Other factors, such as Weld's noncommittal position on Helms's chairmanship during his 1996 Senate campaign and Weld's wife's donation to the Gantt campaign, made the nomination personal and less cooperative. Held up in the committee by Helms, despite Weld resigning his governorship to concentrate on the nomination and a petition signed by most senators, his nomination died.

In 2000, Bono sought out Jesse Helms to discuss increasing American aid to Africa. In Africa, AIDS is a disease that is primarily transmitted heterosexually, and Helms sympathized with Bono's description of 'the pain it is bringing to infants and children and their families'. Helms insisted that Bono involve the international community and private sector, so that relief efforts would not be paid for by 'just Americans'. Helms coauthored a bill authorizing $600 million for international AIDS relief efforts. In 2002, Helms announced that he was ashamed to have done so little during his Senate career to fight the worldwide spread of AIDS, and pledged to do more during his last few months in the Senate. Helms spoke with special appreciation of the efforts of Janet Museveni, first lady of Uganda, for her efforts to stop the spread of AIDS through a campaign based on 'biblical values and sexual purity'.

Because of recurring health problems, including bone disorders, prostate cancer, and heart disease, Helms did not seek re-election in 2002. His Senate seat was won by Elizabeth Dole, a former Johnson, Nixon, and Ford presidential advisor that served as Reagan's Transportation Secretary (which at that time included the Coast Guard), Bush's Labor Secretary, and a former Presidential candidate, who also happened to be the wife of long-time colleague and former Senator Bob Dole of Kansasmarker.

Post-Senate life (2003 – 2008)

In 2004, he spoke out for the election of Republican U.S. Representative Richard Burr, who, like Elizabeth Dole two years earlier, defeated Democrat Erskine Bowles to win the other North Carolina Senate seat. In September 2005, Random House published his memoir Here's Where I Stand. In his memoirs, he likened abortion to the Holocaust and the September 11 terrorist attacks stating, "I will never be silent about the death of those who cannot speak for themselves." Helms had also been recruited by pop star Bono for charity work.

In 1994, after turning down requests for his papers to be left to an Ivy League university, he designated Wingate University as the repository of the official papers and historical items from his Senate career, where the Jesse Helms Centermarker is based to promote his legacy. In 2005, Liberty Universitymarker opened the Jesse Helms School of Governmentmarker with Helms present at the dedication.

Helms's health remained poor after he retired from the Senate in 2003. In April 2006, news reports disclosed that Helms had multi-infarct dementia, which leads to failing memory and diminished cognitive function, as well as a number of physical difficulties. He was later moved into a convalescent center near his home. Helms died of vascular dementia during the early morning hours of July 4, 2008, at the age of 86. He is buried in Historic Oakwood Cemeterymarker in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Social and political views


Helms opposed many progressive policies regarding race, such as busing, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Helms called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 'the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress', and sponsored legislation to either extend it to the entire country or scrap it altogether. Helms reminded voters that he tried, with a 16-day filibuster, to stop the Senate from approving a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, although he had fewer reservations about establishing a North Carolina state holiday for King. He has been accused of being a segregationist by liberals and political scholars including USA Today's DeWayne Wickham who wrote that Helms 'subtly carried the torch of white supremacy' from Ben Tillman.

In 1996 the Department of Justice admonished Helms's 1990 campaign for mailing 125,000 postcards to households in predominantly African-American precincts warning them (incorrectly) that they could go to jail if they had not updated their addresses on the electoral register since moving. Helms opposed 'every piece of civil rights and affirmative action legislation' and blocked 'Black judges from being considered for the federal bench'. In 1982, he voted against the extension of the Voting Rights Act. Helms opposed busing, supported the 'racist apartheid regime of South Africa', and 'for years blocked attempts by President Bill Clinton to appoint a Black judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals'. Only when Helms's own judicial choices were threatened with blocking did attorney Roger Gregory of Richmond, Virginiamarker get confirmed. Helms tried to block the nomination of Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American female senator, as ambassador to New Zealandmarker.

Views on Homosexuality

Helms had a negative view of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and LGBT rights in the United States. Throughout his five terms in the Senate, Helms consistently spoke out against any and all LGBT-friendly legislation without hesitation. Helms called homosexuals 'weak, morally sick wretches' and tried to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts for supporting the 'gay-oriented artwork of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe'. In 1993, when then-president Bill Clinton wanted to appoint 'out' lesbian Roberta Achtenberg to assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Developmentmarker, Helms held up the confirmation 'because she's a damn lesbian', adding '[s]he's not your garden-variety lesbian. She's a militant-activist-mean lesbian'. Helms also stated 'I'm not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine'. When Clinton urged that gays be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces, Helms said the president 'better have a bodyguard' if he visited North Carolina. His views on gay and lesbian citizens were depicted in the 1998 documentary film Dear Jesse.

Helms 'fought bitterly against federal financing for AIDS research and treatment, saying the disease resulted from 'unnatural' and 'disgusting' homosexual behavior'. "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy," he said in 1988. In his final Senate year, he supported AIDS measures in Africa, where heterosexual transmission of the disease is most common, yet still held the belief that the 'homosexual lifestyle' is the cause of the spread of the epidemic in America.

Personal life


Jesse and Dot had three children: Jane, Nancy of Raleighmarker, and Charles Helms of Winston-Salem, North Carolinamarker. Charles was a nine-year-old orphan with cerebral palsy who they adopted after reading in a newspaper that Charles wanted a mother and father for Christmas. The couple had seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Religious views

Helms was well known for his fervent religious views, and he played a leading role in the development of the Christian right. Although a Southern Baptist from his upbringing in a strictly literalist, but hawkishly secularist, environment, when in Raleigh, Helms worshipped at the moderate Hayes-Barton Baptist Church, where he had served as a deacon and Sunday school teacher before his election to the Senate. Helms was close to fellow North Carolinian Billy Graham (whom he considered a personal hero), Pat Robertson, as well as Jerry Falwell, whose Liberty Universitymarker dedicated its Jesse Helms School of Government to Helms. Helms helped found Camp Willow Run, an interdenominational Christian summer camp, sitting on its board of directors until his death, and was a Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of freemasons in North Carolina.

Equating leftism and atheism, Helms argued that the downfall of the USA was due to loss of Christian faith, and often stated, "I think God is giving this country one more chance to save itself". He believed that the morality of capitalism was assured in the Bible, through the Parable of the Talents. He believed, writing in When Free Men Shall Stand, that 'such utopian slogans as Peace with Honor, Minimum Wage, Racial Equality, Women's Liberation, National Health Insurance, Civil Liberty' are ploys by which to divide humanity 'as sons of God'.


He held honorary degrees from several universities including Bob Jones Universitymarker, Campbell Universitymarker, Grove City Collegemarker, and Wingate University.


  • When Free Men Shall Stand (1976); Zondervan Pub. House.
  • Empire for Liberty: A Sovereign America and Her Moral Mission (2001); by National Book Network.
  • Here’s Where I Stand: A Memoir (2005); New York: Random House.


  1. Shirley (2005), p. 176
  2. Link (2007), p. 318
  3. Shirley (2005), p. 23
  4. Shirley (2005), p. 160
  5. Shirley (2005), p. 61
  6. Shirley (2005), p. 175
  7. Shirley (2005), p. 275
  8. Shirley (2005), p. 311
  9. Link (2008), p. 188
  10. Link (2007), p. 193–4
  11. Link (2007), p. 196
  12. Link (2007), p. 199
  13. Greenburg, Jan Crawford. Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court.2007. Penguin Books. Page 222.
  14. Link (2007), p. 260
  15. Link (2007), p. 259
  16. Race Matters - Jesse Helms, WhiteRacist, by David Broder
  17. Link (2007), p. 248
  18. Link (2007), p. 249
  20. Kinzer (2006), p. 246–7
  21. Kinzer (2006), p. 247
  22. States News Service, 5/17/88
  23. Helms's 'Hands' anti-affirmative action campaign ad on YouTube, item KIyewCdXMzk
  24. (Chicago Sun-Times, 8/5/93)
  25. Roy (2000), p. 29
  26. Roy (2000), p. 30
  27. Roy (2000), p. 31
  28. Roy (2000), p. 192
  29. Link (2008), p. 447
  30. Link (2008), p. 446–7
  31. Link (2007), p. 379–80


Further reading

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