Jesse Helms

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Jesse Helms

Jesse Helms (1921-2008) was a Republican U.S. Senator from North Carolina (U.S. state), 1973-2003, and a leader in the conservative movement with special attention to race, morals, religion and foreign policy. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, taking the lead in opposing the United Nations and backing authoritarian regimes in Latin America if they supported U.S. policies and opposed the Cuba of Fidel Castro. In the Fifth Party System he played a major role in the realignment of the white South from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold, especially by bringing bringing Southern Baptists and other religious evangelicals into the political area by stressing the need to defend their conservative social values in the face of encroaching secularism. He emphasized opposition to abortion and pornography. He was not charismatic or flamboyant, but was an articulate speaker who honed his skills as a radio and television commentator. A systematic organizer, he built a national grassroots network of financial supporters for the conservative cause. He was reviled by liberals as their bête noire whom they called a racist (a charge he denied). None of his positions was original, but he was innovative in putting together a new and successful political coalition. Personally charming and well-liked by his colleagues, Helms took a hard-line on issues of concern, earning the sobriquet "Senator No" for his opposition to popular bills that he thought unwise. Helms saw himself as the defender of individual freedom and republican ideals of liberty against the encroachments of the federal government as promoted by his great enemy, the liberals. However, his social conservatism pitched him at odds with the Old Right/libertarian wing of GOP at that time led by Senator Barry Goldwater, who remarked Helms as "off his rocker".[1] Helms told conservatives they had a duty to proselytize, to persuade, to confront the enemies, in particular liberalism, communism, atheism, feminism, homosexuality, pornography, forced busing, and secularism.


Helms, a Southern Baptist, attended Wingate Junior College and graduated from Wake Forest College in 1941. After service in the Navy, 1942-1945, and work as a congressional aide in the early 1950s he became a well-known journalist and commentator in North Carolina delivering conservative editorials for 12 years on WRAL-TV in Raleigh. He regularly blasted black militants and antiwar protesters in the 1960s. Helms was a Democrat until 1970; he won the Senate seat as a Republican in 1972, defeating Democratic Congressman Nick Galifianakis with 54% of the vote. Helms was reelected in 1978 (with 55%), 1984 (with 52%), 1990 (with 53%), and 1996 (with 53%). Although repeatedly targeted for defeat by national Democrats, he always pulled off narrow victories, and helped his allies win statewide office as well.

Racial issues

Nowhere was Helms' influence more potent than in defining the conservative response to the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s. He replaced explicitly racial language denigrating the blacks with moralistic discourse, sanitized for a postwar universalist era. Helms dropped the old racial stereotypes that white southerners had long deployed as evidence of African American unfitness for politics--allegations of illiteracy, hyper-sexuality, and criminality. He sought an interracial moral community that denounced crime, adultery, aborion and pornography. He attacked civil right activists, student protesters, secularists and liberals and standing opposed to his coalition of the morally pure. Helms furthermore created a conservative cross-class alliance that brought together the well-educated modernizing suburbanites and the traditionalistic rural folk. Helms' ideas went beyond mere political opportunism. He advocated and implemented privately controlled affirmative action, hiring and promoting blacks at WRAL-TV, but resisted activist or government pressure for these policies to be put into law. He did not oppose integration after 1972 but wanted southern elites to control the pace and nature of integration.[2]

During the 1983 Senate debate on making the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. a national holiday, Helms attacked King's personal morality, focusing on King's notorious adultery and his connections with a prominent Communist. Although Helms was unable to prevent the national holiday, he did undermine any notions that King was a saintly holy man. Opponents and friends admired novelty wristwatches with Helms's face that ran counter-clockwise, telling time backwards.

School busing

Helms led the conservative attack on busing for school integration ordered by federal judges. In Charlotte, N.C., for example, tens of thousands of children were bused around the city in order that schools achieve a certain racial percentage. He argued it was an effort to punish children for the supposed sins of their parents or grandparents, and had never been approved by Congress. His efforts to have Congress ban the practice usually failed, however. By 1970 the House had majorities opposed to busing, a majority which grew with each succeeding debate on the issue. The Senate, however, continued to back busing, knocking out or weakening the House busing prohibitions. In 1975, for example, Helms worked with Senators Robert Byrd (D-WVa) and Joe Biden (D-Del) to add an anti-busing amendment; they were defeated by a 48-43 vote. Busing was eventually closed out by the courts, but only after Helms made the denunciation of "activist federal judges" a critical part of the conservative armory.[3]

Conservative coalition

Helms set up the nationwide "Congressional Club", one of the first large-scale efforts to fund conservative candidates around the country. It was a technical innovator in direct mail, in pursuit of traditionalist values. Hundreds of thousands of people around the country sent in checks--some $30 million between 1980 and 1988--and the mailing list itself was an invaluable asset.[4] Helms combined $14 million of Old Right money and ideology with the New Right's moralistic rhetoric and computerized sophistication to beat back Democratic Governor Jim Hunt and win reelection in 1984.[5]

Helms led the fight against the National Endowment for the Arts, trying to abolish the agency or at least bar funding for sexually explicit projects. He reached a compromise with NEA head Jane Alexander that allowed the agency to continue, but it stopped funding individual artists.

In North Carolina Helms exemplified and defended the traditionalist rural and small-town white culture, as well as its suburban Christian conservatism and economic libertarianism. In the eyes of his voters, Helms stood as the defender of traditional ideals in the midst of unsettling statewide growth.[6]

Foreign Policy

As the powerful and aggressive chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee after 1995, Senator Helms pushed American foreign policy to the right, with strong support for Israel and strong opposition to Cuba. To the surprise of both, he worked well with Democrat Madeleine Albright when she was U.N. Ambassador and Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. Helms also worked will with Joe Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Helms had previously opposed increased funding for AIDS research but later changed his position.[7][8] In 2001-2002 Helms collaborated with Irish popular singer Bono in a successful campaign for Congress to allocate billions for AIDS victims in Africa.

Helms argued that the United Nations had usurped power from its members, was becoming a quasi-sovereign entity in itself, and thus threatened American interests. He called for an ultimatum: Either the United Nations reforms quickly and dramatically or the United States will end its participation. The ultimatum was never issued.[9]

In 1997, as the committee chairman Helms successfully blocked Clinton's nomination of former Massachusetts governor William Weld, a moderate Republican, to the ambassadorship to Mexico.[10]

Helms led the fight against the Clinton administration's effort to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999 and in 2000 doomed any prospect for ratification of a modified 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He told U.S. Capitol Historical Society in 1998:

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was, I believe, intended to be the Senate's brake on foreign policy. ... It is our job to say to presidents and secretaries of state, when they come demanding quick action on 'urgent' treaties and legislation, 'Slow down, let's think on this a little.' We hold hearings, we listen to witnesses with differing points of view.[11]


  • CQ. "Helms, Jesse Alexander" in CQ, Politics in America 2002. The 107th Congress. (2001)
  • Furgurson, Ernest B. Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms. 1986. 302 pp.
  • Thrift, Bryan Hardin. "Jesse Helms, the New Right, and American Freedom." PhD dissertation Boston U. 2005. 364 pp. DAI 2004 65(5): 1935-1936-A. DA3132781 full text in ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Link William A. Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (2008), the major scholarly biography
  • Luebke, Paul. Tar Heel Politics: Myths and Realities. (1990) online edition
  • Snider, William D. Helms and Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984 (1985) online edition

Primary sources

  • Helms, Jesse. Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir (2005)
  • Helms, Jesse. "Saving the U.N.: A Challenge to the Next Secretary-General," Foreign Affairs, September/October 1996 online edition


  1. Barry Goldwater Dead At 89, CNN.
  2. Thrift, "Jesse Helms, the New Right, and American Freedom." (2005)
  3. CQ, "Civil Rights, 1973-1976 Legislative Overview" In Congress and the Nation, 1973-1976 (Vol. 4) (1977)
  4. Luebke, Tar Heel Politics (1990) ch 8
  5. Luebke, Tar Heel Politics (1990) ch 9
  6. Luebke, Tar Heel Politics (1990)
  7. Senator Jesse Helms: Cut AIDS Funding, Associated Press, 5 Jul 95
  8. Jesse Helms To Tackle AIDS, Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2002
  9. Helms (1996)
  10. See Helms v. Weld report from PBS
  11. CQ, "Helms, Jesse Alexander" in CQ, Politics in America 2002. The 107th Congress. (2001)