Former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative icon and opponent of
U.S. foreign aid, died Friday at the age of 86. A spokesman says the
former lawmaker died of natural causes in his home state of North
Carolina. VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington.
got to put up with that right-wing extremist from North Carolina until
well after the 21st century, the lord willing," said Helms.
his 30 years on Capitol Hill, the North Carolina Republican became a
powerful voice for a conservative movement that was growing both in the
U.S. Congress and across the country. He used his position to speak out
against issues like gay rights, federal funding for the arts and U.S.
Jesse Helms was born in 1921, in a small town in
North Carolina. He was a journalist, commentator, broadcast executive
and banker before winning his first Senate race in 1972. The lawmaker
soon became known nationwide as a forceful conservative spokesman, a
reputation he kept for the rest of his life. He supported the armed
forces, prayer in public schools and other old-fashioned values. He
fiercely opposed legal abortion, homosexuality and government-funded
The senator also remained a rigid anti-communist long after
the end of the Cold War. Cuba was one of his favorite targets. In
1996 he co-authored the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened the U.S.
economic blockade around the island. The measure touched off a storm
of protest from Cuba's trading partners, like Canada, Mexico and the
European Union. Helms was typically unapologetic.
"I've said it
before and I'll say it again. Those people [who] are so eager to deal
with the bloody Fidel Castro remind me of a guy named Neville
Chamberlain," said Helms. "Remember that name? He was the British
prime minister who went over to Munich in the 1930's and sat down with
Despite his power in Washington, Helms had to
fight some hard political battles in his home state. He narrowly won
re-election in 1984, and six years later faced a tough race against an
African-American opponent, Harvey Gantt. That year, the Helms campaign
aired a television commercial that showed a pair of white hands
crumpling a job rejection letter.
"You needed that job," he
said. "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."
Critics charged that the commerical was thinly
veiled racism, but Helms won the election. He beat Gantt again six
years later to win his fifth term. After 30 years in the Senate, Helms
retired in 2002.