Accessibility links

Retiring Senator Helms:  A Controversial Conservative

One of the Senate's most notable, some might say controversial, figures retires at the end of this year. In an election year when Democrats and Republicans are fighting for every Senate seat at stake to gain partisan control of the chamber, Republicans are especially keen to hold onto the seat of the retiring Jesse Helms. But it's unlikely that anyone can truly replace the politician known as "Senator No."

Last summer, in an emotional televised address, Senator Jesse Helms announced his retirement. The veteran Republican thanked North Carolina voters for sending him back to the Senate for five six-year terms.

"And not in my wildest imagination did it ever occur to me that such a privilege would ever be mine," he said.

He attributed the timing of his retirement to his age and his health... he'd be 88, he said, if he served out another term, and with several health problems that kept him sidelined for much of the recent Congressional session, now was as good a time as any to slow down.

That was sad news, or great news, depending on whom you asked. In a radio call-in show aired just after the announcement, North Carolina residents offered opinions that covered the entire spectrum.

"I'm very glad to see such an intolerant man step down. I mean...unless you're white, Christian, and believe what he thinks, he has no time for you," said one woman.

"My father had a civil rights trial against him with his restaurant in New Bern, North Carolina and Jesse Helms wrote a very, very nice article in support of my father," said another woman.

"He differed with people based upon principles he held to be inviolate, and if that meant dividing party or showing the divisions, that was not something he was reluctant to do," said Jack Fleer, political science professor at Wake Forest University. Mr. Fleer has followed Jesse Helms' entire 30-year Senate career. He vividly remembers numerous times, both on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, when the Senator engaged in "divisive politics" to remain true to his principles.

He spent years resisting efforts to pay dues to the United Nations, questioning its mission and its usefulness to the United States. He eventually helped negotiate a dues settlement worth just under $1 billion, but when he spoke before the U.N. Security Council, he pulled no punches.

"Congress has written a check to the United Nations for $926 million, payable upon the implementation of previously agreed-upon, commonsense reforms," he said. "Now the choice is up to you here at the United Nations, and I suggest if the United Nations were to reject this compromise, it would mark the beginning of the end for U.S. support for the United Nations, and I don't want that to happen."

With his frequent "no" votes, especially on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms demonstrated one of the unique aspects of the U.S. Senate, according to political scientist Jack Fleer.

"By sticking to by his positions, he would stand his ground and would bring people closer to him... they wouldn't necessarily adopt his views, but they realized the power of one person. And the U.S. Senate is a place in national political bodies where one person can make a difference, one can stop it from operating," said Mr. Fleer.

Jesse Helms didn't just stop the Senate from operating when it suited his purposes, he helped pass significant legislation, like the 1995 Helms-Burton act, which allowed lawsuits against anyone who profits from Cuban property confiscated by Fidel Castro.

"I want you fellows to - and ladies - to deliver a message to Cuba for me: Farewell Fidel. That's the message of this bill," he said.

There were times when North Carolina's senior senator walked more softly... but still carried a big stick. In 1978, during debate on the State Department budget, Senator Helms quickly and quietly pushed through an amendment by voice vote that effectively shut off U.S. payments to the United Nations. It took months for the State Department to "unfreeze" the funds.

Jesse Helms was even more crafty on the campaign trail. Several of his television ads, often run just days or weeks before election day, left an indelible impression on voters. One of them, broadcast during his race against Democrat Harvey Gantt, depicted an older white man reading a job rejection letter, while an announcer explained the position went to a less-qualified member of an ethnic or racial minority group.

Harvey Gantt, the African-American former mayor of Charlotte, lost two close elections to Jesse Helms. Appearing on NPR's Talk Of The Nation, he said he still resents those campaign tactics.

"It smacked of racism, and that ad ran at a time when hundreds of thousands of people in the South were losing jobs to Third World countries, particularly low-skill jobs that are common in the textile industry, and he decided to combine that with my support for the Civil Rights Act of 1990 to suggest that quotas and affirmative action programs take jobs from white people and give them to black people, and it was absolutely a distortion," said Mr. Gantt. "But he ran it anyway, and I think it motivated a lot of people."

But while Jesse Helms often didn't pull any punches, he did admit that some of his positions were flawed and modified them, especially in the later years of his career. Among the most notable shifts was his position on funding for AIDS research.

Political scientist Jack Fleer says the senator had frequently linked AIDS to homosexuality, and refused to support funding for homosexual organizations that provided AIDS prevention and treatment services.

"I don't know that I recall any time when he said, 'those people are human, too,' talking about homosexuals, but I think he recognized that AIDS is a much broader problem than one limited to homosexuality, and that enabled him to change his position, but late in his term, and probably after he decided he wouldn't run again," said Mr. Fleer.

Taken as a whole, Jesse Helms' tenure in the Senate has indeed left a mark on the institution and his fellow Senators. On the chamber floor, several members, including Chuck Hegel of Nebraska, applauded him for remaining true to his principles.

"I have not always agreed with Senator Helms, but he has always afforded me the courtesy of not only an opportunity to explain my position, but encouraged me to explain my position even when he disagreed," he said.

In the race for the now open seat, the two major party candidates, Republican former cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole and Democrat former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, have praised Jesse Helms, saying they'd chiefly differ from him on style. But political scientist Jack Fleer pointed out neither candidate will approach the job of senator as Jesse Helms did.

"He made his mark by not being a moderate, by being ideological, and by standing alone, if that were necessary," said Mr. Fleer. "My own judgment is neither a Senator Dole nor Senator Bowles stand in that position."

Senator Jesse Helms completes his fifth term in office this January.