Jesse Helms: Powerful Republican senator who championed right-wing causes during three decades in Congress

Jesse Helms belonged to an almost vanished breed of racist lawmakers who grew up in the old South when it was segregationist and uniformly Democratic but became Republicans in disgust at President Lyndon John's civil rights legislation. Unlike the majority of them however, he became one of the most powerful and redoubtable Congressional figures of his era. As chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee for much of the 1990s, he could – and sometimes did – hold the Clinton administration's foreign policy to ransom, almost single handed.

With his election to the Senate in 1972, Helms was the first Republican to win a state-wide vote in North Carolina since Reconstruction. During his 30 years in Washington, he became famous – or rather infamous – for his hostility to, among others, liberals, gays, avant-garde art, socialists, the United Nations and foreign aid, and for his fondness for the some of the most unpleasant regimes in the world, provided they were suitably pro-American.

His outbursts were legendary. Helms once described foreign aid as pouring money "down a rat hole". During Bill Clinton's first term, he warned the President to "bring a bodyguard" if he visited North Carolina, a remark that earned him a brief investigation by the Secret Service. "If you want to call me a bigot, fine," he once declared, after venting his disapproval of a Clinton nominee as "a damn lesbian."

Helms' stubbornness could on occasion enrage even his own colleagues – one reason why his legislative record was so modest. But the measure for which he is best known, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 strengthening sanctions against Cuba, was typical of his take-no-prisoners approach to lawmaking.

Not only did it take aim at Cuba itself. To the outrage of Canada and other US allies, it also stipulated legal action against non-US companies who did business with the Castro regime. Helms, never a diplomat, didn't care. He was nicknamed, not surprisingly, "Senator No," and such was his clout as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that he almost always got his way.

And then there was race. Helms steadfastly rejected charges he was a racist, but the evidence suggests otherwise. He cut his political teeth on the staff of the North Carolina senator Willis Smith, who was elected in 1950 on an explicitly segregationist platform. He strongly supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, and once ostentatiously whistled "Dixie" while standing alongside the black Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois. Helms was also a conspicuous opponent of creating a Martin Luther King Day in honour of the assassinated civil rights leader.

Above all perhaps there was the advertisement that helped win his hard-fought Senate race in 1990 against the black lawyer Harvey Gantt. The spot showed a white hand holding a crumpled job rejection slip, and a voice-over blaming positive discrimination. With its subliminal racism, the ad became a sinister classic of the genre. Most important for Helms, it did the trick.

That victory, like his other Senate triumphs was narrow indeed; in all five races, his majority never reached 55 per cent. But that too served as a lesson to his party, that 50 per cent plus one is enough to win. Later, Karl Rove would use an identical strategy with George W. Bush, of first polarising the electorate, and then getting out the candidate's core vote. It helped of course that Helms had money – as much as $16m to spend on his 1996 rematch with Gantt.

Jesse Helms was born in 1921 in Monroe in southern North Carolina, where the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful presence and his father – "Big Jesse" – was the local sheriff. His first job was as a sports reporter for The Raleigh Times (which later merged with The News and Observer). There followed a spell in radio, before he went to Washington as administrative assistant to the newly elected Willis Smith.

After Smith's sudden death in 1953, Helms returned to North Carolina where he entered the banking industry. But he found true local fame as a right-wing broadcaster on a Raleigh television station, where he lambasted liberals nightly, describing his former newspaper as "The Nuisance and Disturber." By then his prejudices were set, and in January 1973, a senator in his own right, he took them back to Washington, DC.

Behind the caricature of "Senator No" lurked an astute politician who helped pioneer strategies that would soon serve Republicans well. Helms was among the first to pitch for the evangelical vote. He also quickly grasped the benefit of berating the "liberal media" as inherently biased against his adopted Republican party. As his battles with Gantt showed, few were more adept at the politics of resentment, whipping up the vote of "angry white man".

In a sense, Jesse Helms was the poster boy for Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" that turned the once-solid Democratic region into today's Republican stronghold, and enabled his party to dominate the presidential election arithmetic for 40 years. The most successful Republican in North Carolina's history, he pushed the entire spectrum of his party to the right. But success came at a high moral price.

David Broder of The Washington Post, doyen of the capital's political reporters, is a man who measures his words, not given to rancour. His parting judgement on Helms, delivered in August 2001 when the ailing Senator announced he would not seek another term, was thus all the more stinging. What was "unique and unforgivable about Helms," Broder wrote, "is his willingness to pick at the scab of the great wound of American history, and to inflame racial resentment against African Americans."

Rupert Cornwell

Jesse Alexander Helms, politician: born Monroe, North Carolina 21 October 1921; US Senator for North Carolina 1973-2002; Chairman, Senate Agriculture Committee 1981-87; Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee 1995-2001; married 1942 Dorothy Coble (one son, two daughters); died Raleigh, North Carolina 4 July 2008.

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