Helms, Jesse 1921–2008

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Helms, Jesse 1921–2008

(Jesse A. Helms, Jesse Alexander Helms, Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr.)


See index for CA sketch: Born October 18, 1921, in Monroe, NC; died July 4, 2008, in Raleigh, NC. Politician, broadcast executive, radio newscaster, journalist, and author. Helms reigned for thirty years as one of the most conservative, contentious, contrary members of the U.S. Senate, a staunch supporter of southern values and a tireless foe of anything or anyone who challenged or threatened those values. Helms emerged from North Carolina in 1972 as a Democrat-turned-Republican. His decade as a radio executive, an often inflammatory, race-baiting political commentator for a Raleigh radio station, and a passionate local newspaper columnist gave him the recognition he needed to win his first election to the Senate. For the next five terms his actions on the Senate floor ensured that almost every adult in America knew who he was. Helms antagonized liberals and conservatives alike, including several presidents. He held strong opinions and voiced them forcefully; he never compromised and almost never changed his mind. Helms supported tobacco interests, military spending, free-market economics, government, the death penalty, school prayer, moral purity, the National Rifle Association, and many other issues dear to the hearts of the most conservative Republicans, especially southern voters. In short, he believed in a well-ordered society where all people knew their place and stayed in it.

He opposed racial integration, social legislation, social security, affirmative action, abortion, gay rights, and government funding of controversial art. He fought Communism and supported dictatorships that opposed Communism, but resisted providing foreign aid to Third World countries in need of social welfare. His opposition was undeniably vocal and tenacious. Helms had the stamina to block liberal legislation by the power of filibuster, which he employed for sixteen long days in a 1983 effort to prevent the adoption of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday. It was one of several campaigns that he lost, sometimes as the sole dissenter, but to his supporters even losing was a moral victory.

Helms built and maintained a huge, direct-mail operation that garnered substantial contributions from those supporters. His political victories were never landslides, nor were they intended to be. He only needed enough votes to win, and that enabled him to champion the conservative cause until he chose to retire. When Helms retired in 2003, he took with him a reputation for his defense of what he believed to be a body of traditional southern values. He also took a heavy portfolio of awards. He had received a Freedoms Foundation Award, a legislator of the year award from the National Rifle Association, an outstanding service award from the Council against Communist Aggression, a Watchdog of the Treasury Award, and a Guardian of Small Business Award. He was also honored by the American Economic Council, the Public Service Research Council, Women for a Constitutional Government, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Most of Helms's views were clearly revealed in his speeches and interviews, but he did record them for posterity in such books as Where Free Men Shall Stand: A Sobering Look at the Supertaxing, Superspending, Superbureaucracy in Washington (1976), Empire for Liberty: A Sovereign America and Her Moral Mission (2001), and his memoir Here's Where I Stand (2005).



Helms, Jesse, Here's Where I Stand, Random House (New York, NY), 2005.


Chicago Tribune, July 5, 2008, sec. 1, pp. 1, 11.

Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2008, pp. A1, A19.

New York Times, July 5, 2008, pp. A1, B8; July 9, 2008, p. A4.

Times (London, England), July 5, 2008, p. 86.

Washington Post, July 5, 2008, pp. A1, A6.