- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

Former Sen. Jesse Helms wasn’t quite what some critics claimed or what some supporters thought. He strove to be himself and largely succeeded over a long legislative career — no mean feat for any politician.

Mr. Helms, who died Friday at age 86, was a Democrat before he was a Republican and a limited-government conservative above all else. He was a proud regional politician born to the politics of a South that could not come to grips with the 1960s civil rights movement. But he was neither parochial nor bigoted.

During a long chat with this reporter in Thomas Jefferson.”

While he defended the United Daughters of the Confederacy in a 1993 copyright dispute, he also said Southerners are thankful for the Union victory that ended slavery — which he called a step forward in human progress. For him, as in his view for all true conservatives, it is the nature of government to be the potential enemy of individual freedom.

“Of course, we are all better off to be living in a country where freedom for all individuals is the law of the land,” he said. “We are better off with the defeat of communism. Imagine how much better off we will be when once again unborn children can be safe from the destruction of abortion.”

Mr. Helms took offense at the repeated accusation of racism, speaking often of his good relationships with blacks and pointing to the black members on his staff — one of whom was Library of Congress, but only Mr. Helms replied.

Mr. Helms said he opposed the Civil Rights Act because he didn’t want the federal government intervening in state matters. He considered the civil rights movement corrupt and self-serving, said University of Florida and a Helms biographer.

“I felt that the citizens of my community, my state and my region of the country were being battered by this new form of bigotry,” Mr. Helms wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Here’s Where I Stand.” “I simply could not stay silent in the face of this assault — and I didn’t.”

He could be — and often was — stubborn and unyielding when principles and policy came together, bucking Democratic and Republican administrations, blocking treaties and arms agreements, presidential appointments and domestic legislation whenever he thought they jeopardized limited government, national defense or civilized standards of behavior.

Even some of his liberal critics admired him for that — “You may not agree with Jesse, but you always know where he stands,” the mantra went.

He told The Times it would be presumptuous of him to agree with those who called him the “conscience of the Senate” during his 30-year tenure in that chamber. But he fully understood why he was best-known as a defender of the conservative faith on foreign policy.

“I felt pretty good the day our bills to reorganize the United Nations were passed,” he said with that smile that contained a tinge of devilishness mixed with surprise that he had said what he had just said.

Taming the State Department and U.N. spending are important parts of Mr. Helms’ legacy. Nobody deserves the credit more for putting the Senate back at the center of White House’s or the State Department’s initiatives, he said.

From his start in the Senate in 1973, he expressed concern over the content of the Paris Peace Accords that North Vietnam’s communist government.

During the Times interview, Mr. Helms said he had purposely taken on foreign-policy issues. A member of Africa and about the effect at home and abroad of proposed treaties and agreements.

As one measure of his effect on foreign policy, when the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher showed up to stand beside her old chum and political ally.

In a memorial column in Saturday’s Raleigh Rob Christensen, who said Mr. Helms would sometimes berate him by name on the campaign stump, acknowledged Mr. Helms as a prophet about one of today’s leading world issues.

Mr. Helms had fought harder than anyone else in Congress against putting Rhodesia, Mr. Christensen wrote, going on to acknowledge that “Helms was right. Mugabe turned out to be one of the world’s leading tyrants.”

But Mr. Helms’ greatest political accomplishment came when he wasn’t even on the ballot. His decision to back President Gerald Ford in 1976 led the struggling ex-governor to an upset win in North Carolina.

“The folks in North Carolina helped get Ronald Reagan to the White House by giving him their votes in the 1976 presidential primary,” Mr. Helms told The Times. “Winning that election kept Reagan in the race and positioned him for a successful campaign in 1980.”

Carter Wrenn, who led Mr. Helms’s Congressional Club for 20 years, said that “the role that Jesse played in that one primary 32 years ago was key to electing a president — which was key to Reagan, which was key to America winning the Cold War.”

Mr. Helms’ public outspokenness and the resulting polarized opinion of him — his re-election bids were never the kind of lopsided formalities that incumbents are used to - gave him little room for error with the folks back home.

His views resonated with North Carolina voters and generated a solid voting base, said Duke University.

“He spoke directly to the white middle classes and lower classes in the way that very few Southern Democrats have,” Mr. Munger said. “He was one of them.”

Indeed, precisely because Mr. Helms was “one of them,” he became legendary in the Senate for constituent service and kindness to people who contacted his office — a point on which North Carolinians of all stripes remembered him on Independence Day weekend.

Wayne Moser, a Raleigh optometrist, recalled Mr. Helms’ office, which once helped him obtain passports, for high-quality constituent services.

“You didn’t have to be a Republican … by the way,” said Mr. Moser, 56. “Maybe in death he won’t be as polarizing as he was in life.”

His one major deviation from free-market orthodoxy was over a home-state concern. He protected federal tobacco subsidies from his post as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“I just remember him not taking junk from anybody,” said Wilmington’s main thoroughfare. “I think it’s ironic that he went on the Fourth of July, because he was a firecracker.”

Mr. Christensen noted his “many virtues: He was honest, hard-working and unpretentious. He never forgot the people who put him in office. He could be charming, and if you asked him, I suspect he would give you the shirt off his back.”

“Whether you agreed with him or not on issues, it never affected his personal relationship with you,” said Bill Cobey, a former congressman and state GOP chairman. “He believed he had a right to stand for what he believed in, and he believed you did, too.”

Mr. Helms will lie in repose Monday at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh. His funeral will be Tuesday at the church. The burial service is to be private.

This article was based in part on wire-service reports.

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