Editorial: Jesse Helms 1921-2008
It’s official: We will not have Jesse Helms to kick around anymore.
The former senator from North Carolina passed on the Fourth of July, just like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Charles Kuralt and, for what it’s worth, Barry White. He was 86.
Helms will be remembered, that’s for sure. He was a dominant political force not just in his home state, but in the national agenda as well, choosing issues like civil rights, affirmative action, welfare and arts funding to galvanize a conservative movement that has had clout in American politics since the 1960s, when Helms was still a Democrat.
Some forget that he got his start as a journalist, first as a reporter for the Raleigh Times and, later, the News & Observer, a paper that would later become one of his most vocal critics, and still later delivering on-air commentary for WRAL, where he got his first taste of politics. Helms extensively covered the 1950 Senate race between Frank Porter Graham and Willis Smith and played a role in the Smith campaign. Today an arrangement like that might be considered illegal, and certainly a conflict of interest. But Helms’ guy won the election, largely because pictures of his opponent’s wife dancing with an African American began circulating throughout the state, and he was off to Washington DC to work for the new senator.
He served on the Raleigh City Council, then returned to WRAL and waged verbal war against communism, war protestors, welfare, crime, abortion, foreign aid and modern art. Then he switched to the Republican Party and won his first Senate seat in 1970, largely on the reputation he earned on the air. And though it was a difficult time politically, he began to accumulate juice in Congress with the formation of the North Carolina Congressional Club, a political action committee which was later renamed the National Congressional Club.
Helms was a force in the 1976 Republican primaries, throwing his weight behind Gov. Ronald Reagan, who lost the nomination in a close race with President Gerald Ford but was able to come back in 1980 and start a conservative revolution in the United States.
Friend and foe alike will admit that Helms was a major player in US politics in the last quarter of the 20th Century. He opposed most social programs, the establishment of Martin Luther King Day, Russians, the Clintons, the “liberal media” (he once tried to buy CBS) and the University of North Carolina, which he once called, “The University of Negroes and Communists.” He supported tobacco and most other agriculture, segregation, the Confederate flag, divisive politics – he never won more than 55 percent of the vote in any election – and race-baiting campaign ads.
He always had time for teenagers and farmers, stayed married to the same woman, Dot, for more than 50 years and once tried to make Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun cry in an elevator.
And though he is gone, his presence will be felt in American politics as long as there is a conservative branch of the Republican Party.
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