News & Observer | | Jesse Helms dead at 86

Published: Jul 04, 2008 10:59 AM
Modified: Jul 04, 2008 01:26 PM

Jesse Helms dead at 86

Conservative icon and former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms has died.

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Audio: Hear News & Observer staff writer Rob Christensen discuss the career of former U.S. Sen Jesse Helms.
RALEIGH - Former U.S. Sen. Jesse A. Helms, the son of a Monroe police chief who rose to national prominence as one of the leading lions of the American right, died early this morning. He was 86.

During a political career that began with his election to the Raleigh City Council in the late 1950s and included 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Jesse Alexander Helms endeared himself to conservatives throughout the country.

Helms became known as “Senator No” for his constant battles against everything from increased government spending to civil rights legislation to communism to the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms was even willing to wage war against fellow Republicans if he felt they were straying from the conservative agenda, particularly in the area of foreign policy.

But as beloved as he was by conservatives, many of whom became part of his potent political organization, Helms was a lightning rod for criticism from liberals and moderates. Whenever Helms was up for re-election, liberals from throughout the country poured money into the campaign of his Democratic opponent.

Helms was once called the “Prince of Darkness” by the chairman of the national Democratic Party.

“Whether you liked his politics or not, he was a national force able to deliver for his constituents," Gov. Mike Easley said in a statement. "We last appeared together when the Navy named a submarine after North Carolina at his request. He certainly didn’t shy from controversy and you always knew what his positions were. Whether we were working together to stop international drug trafficking or opposing each other on the campaign trail, he was always a gentleman to me.”

Personally, Helms could be the picture of the courtly Southern gentleman and entertain guests with stories of his past. Despite his many years in Washington, Helms avoided the social scene so endemic to the nation’s capitol. Instead, he preferred quiet evenings at home with Dorothy.

But Helms also could be cantankerous, particularly with the reporters who worked for the newspapers and television stations that Helms often criticized as pushing a liberal agenda. He was sometimes accused by other senators, including those in his own party, of being obstructionist and mean-spirited.

A longtime smoker, Helms had suffered many health problems in recent years, including prostate cancer and Paget's disease. Helms was born on Oct. 18, 1921 in Monroe, where his father did double duty as the town police and fire chief. With an older brother and younger sister, Helms was a straight-arrow who earned solid if unexceptional grades in school.

"He was a regular old boy — long-legged and bug-eyed,” his former high school principal once said.

Helms briefly attended Wingate College near Monroe before leaving for Wake Forest College. He quit after a year to begin a career as a journalist, working for the next 11 years as a newspaper and radio reporter.

During those years, Helms worked as a sportswriter and news reporter for The News and Observer and as assistant city editor and city editor for The Raleigh Times. He also had a three-year hitch with the Navy during World War II when he wrote press releases at an installation on the North Carolina coast.

While he went on to become a vocal critic of The News & Observer throughout his political career, Helms did find something he liked at the newspaper. While working at the N&O, Helms met Dorothy Coble, editor of the society page. They were married in 1942.

Unlike most successful politicians, Helms did not grow up with politics in his blood. It was not until after he got married and began to talk with his father-in-law, a political conservative, that Helms began to show some interest in politics.

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