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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

£25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor