Last modified on June 7, 2024, at 14:25

Jesse Helms

Jesse Helms
U.S. Senator from North Carolina
From: January 3, 1973 – January 3, 2003
Predecessor B. Everett Jordan
Successor Elizabeth Dole
Party Republican
Spouse(s) Dorothy "Dot" Helms
Religion Baptist
Military Service
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Navy
Service Years 1942-1945

Jesse Helms (born Jesse Alexander Helms, Jr., October 18, 1921, d. July 4, 2008) was a five-time Republican senator from North Carolina.[1] Helms, throughout his tenure as United States Senator was known for his conservative principles, including his support for a strong defense, individual rights, the oppressed, and support for freedom. Like most conservative politicians who eschew political correctness, Helms was frequently the target of mainstream media bias, despite his former career in the media.[2] Helms was a staunch advocate for equality under law, but due to his Southern background and incorrect party affiliation, his positions were misrepresented through typically biased reporting.[3] However, Helms opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[4] Helms also opposed extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Reagan called Helms a "lionhearted leader of a great and growing army."[5]

Frequently Helms was the target of massive, heavily funded liberal efforts to defeat him at reelection, and every time Helms crushed the liberals and won handily. In 1990, a weak election year for Republicans, polls just prior to the election suggested that his liberal African American opponent Harvey Gantt would prevail. Helms ran a final advertisement that became famous as the "hands" ad, showing a white pair of hands and a voice complaining that he lost a job opportunity due to affirmative action, which his opponent supported.[6] The liberal press accused Helms of injecting race into the campaign, to which he responded:[6]

"Absolutely not. What am I supposed to do? Ignore everything that involves a black man? That would make me speechless in this campaign, and Mr. Gantt knows how to dish it out but he can't take it."

While Helms might be called an Internationalist, his support can be understood more in terms of Western military alliances that strengthened US Security such as NATO as opposed to organizations such as the UN.[7]

Helms died at age 86 of natural causes on the Fourth of July, 2008, in Raleigh.[8]

Early life

Helms' parents were Jesse Helms Sr., the local chief of police, and his wife Ethel Mae Helms.[9]


Helms attended public schools. He said this about his high school principal:[10]

"If he taught us anything, he taught us that we are personally responsible and accountable. I remember that day, and always will, when he called in several from the senior class. ... He said you can make it in this country. He said it's going to take hard work. ... He said you're going to succeed. He said you'll own your own homes and you'll have two cars and all that. I thought this man had lost his mind."

Helms attended Wingate Junior College and Wake Forest College.


In 1939, Helms quit Wake Forest to work as a journalist on the Raleigh News and Observer. By the age of 21 he managed the Raleigh Times.[11]

During World War II, Helms served in the Navy as a recruiter. It was during his military career that he discovered his knack for broadcasting.

WRAL Radio and AA to Senator Willis Smith

In 1948, became a radio news director at WRAL in Raleigh, NC. Helms reported on the heated 1950 Democratic primary for the Senate. An ad featured photographs doctored to illustrate the allegation that Graham's wife had danced with a black man.[12] The winner of this race, Senator Willis Smith, took him to Washington as his administrative assistant a post at which he served until 1953 staying on to become Senator Alton Lennon's assistant after Smith's untimely demise.[1] Willis, like Helms was a conservative Southern Democrat.[13] Willis's defeated opponent, the liberal Frank Porter Graham was appointed by his supporter President Harry Truman as Ambassador to the United Nations.[14] Helms also worked on the unsuccessful Democratic primary presidential campaign of Richard B. Russell, Jr., in 1952.

Bankers Association to Capital Broadcasting

Helms early work in politics lead him to become the Executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association and later the Raleigh City Council where he opposed excessive taxation and supported limiting the growth of government.[13] By the mid-1960s, Helms became the executive Vice President for Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh. He directed the news operation and delivered over-the-air commentaries. Helms developed a following due to his firebrand but perceptive political commentary[2] which often attacked the decline of morality, liberal trends in society of the time, the Federal government's dubious social engineering in the southern states and Judicial activism.[13]

Senate career

Sen. Helms with Joe Biden of Delaware.

Years before entering the Senate Helms left the Democratic party for the Republican party, which had long been unpopular outside the Carolina mountain districts. His shift reflected the movement of young conservatives leaving the communist infiltrated Democrat party. In 1972 he ran for the Senate as a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. Helms faced liberal Democrat Nick Galifianakis. Helms's successful tactic was to associate Galifiankis with the highly unpopular liberal presidential candidate George McGovern. He won the Senate seat with 54% of the vote. He was reelected in 1978 (with 55%), 1984 (with 52%), 1990 (with 53%), and 1996 (with 53%). His margins were never large and his campaigns were always intensely fought. Although repeatedly targeted for defeat by national Democrats, he always pulled off narrow victories, and helped his allies win statewide office as well.

On the controversial issue of school busing, Helms voted with Democrat segregationist Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware for the 1975 Biden Amendment that repealed portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the issue of using school busing to achieve racial integration.[15]

Senator No

Helms' opposition to increasing the role of the federal government in the lives of every day citizens earned him the title "Senator No". From his first term to his last Helms rejected nominations of unqualified liberal candidates, against federal spending (except military spending and federal aid for farmers),[13] and opposed naming a holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King.[16] Helms supported and befriended qualified candidates regardless of party affiliation whom he felt would better the country, such as Madeline Albright for US Ambassador to the United Nations and later Secretary of State (ref: Madam Secretary, Madeline Albright). Helms was known for his bipartisan friendships despite ideological differences. However, Helms was broadminded and tolerant of contrary views, and unafraid to be proven in error. For instance Helms originally stood against increased funding to stop the devastation caused by AIDS in Africa. Helms change of heart on this issue in his own words: "It had been my feeling that AIDS was a disease largely spread by reckless and voluntary sexual and drug-abusing behavior, and that it would probably be confined to those in high risk populations. I was wrong."[17]

Standing on principle

Helms challenged the Republican party to promote the socially and economically conservative values of the American People. Helms's conservative values won him a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union for the entire last decade he was in office and never more than 10% according to similar liberal groups. Terry O'Neill—of the far left feminist group, the National Organization for Women—on hearing of Helms ill health and planned retirement reacted gleefully with the statement "It's a very good thing for the country that he's leaving the Senate."

Helms stated his disbelief in the old adage that "morality cannot be legislated". Helms took an active role in campaigning and in helping the Republican party to engage these values. First in his early work for Smith, then locally and eventually in early 1980 played a key role in helping the father of modern conservative, Ronald Reagan, win the Republican primary and take the White House back from the liberal president Jimmy Carter. Helms's political action committee spent over $4.6 million to help Reagan capture the white house.[18] Until recently, when Helms became incapacitated, in his home state of North Carolina few Conservative Republican candidates would run for state or national office without an endorsement from Helms.

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

In 1993, the RFRA was introduced and passed the senate by a vote of 97–3.[19] Helms was one of the three votes against the bill at the time, and for specific reasons which are usually not mentioned[20]

Helms noted:

I believe my credentials are intact regarding my record of support for the religious liberties envisioned by our Founding Fathers. This nation was created by men and women convinced that the right to observe one’s faith, free from the heavy hand of government, is the most cherished of individual freedoms. Having said that, I am obliged to observe that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act purports to strengthen the religious protections afforded by the constitution. In fact, with a name like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, how can anyone vote against it? Unfortunately, around this place you learn quickly that catchy names on bills do not tell what Paul Harvey calls "the rest of the story."
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has less to do with our legal and historical notions of religious liberties than it does with the creation of new rights and employment opportunities for the nation’s lawyers. This legislation when enacted will make it easier for litigants with many different and singular religious beliefs to attack virtually all state and federal laws that somehow burden acts that individuals engage in as part of their religious practice. Mark my words. Once again, the courthouse doors are about to fly open as thousands will demand protection for religious practices as varied as the use of hallucinogenic drugs and animal sacrifice.[21][22]

Foreign Policy

Helms believed that America should stand against dictators and human rights abusers and help bring its values of freedom and democracy to the world. This belief caused Helms to stand against "Most Favored Nation" status for China (which the Reagan and Nixon Administrations supported). At the same time, Helms stood for a strong national defense and strongly opposed Communism and would occasionally compromise on the humanitarian part of his policy when it suited those aims, such was the case in his support for the dictator Augusto Pinochet.[23] Helms opposed arms control and nuclear test-ban treaties even when some of these measures were supported by Reagan himself.[18]

Liberal opposition

Some in the liberal media have questioned Helms' integrity, largely due to his standing against Affirmative Action programs and quotas and secondly for his opposition to many liberal appointees for federal office.[24] Helms stated in his biography he has stood up for candidates in the jobs for which they were qualified. He has opposed liberal and unqualified candidates in posts for which they were not qualified. The record shows Helms enthusiastically supported African American candidates Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Claude Allen, and Condoleezza Rice, as well as other well qualified candidates for the positions in which they were appointed.[25]

In 1996, Helms caused controversy by seeming to threaten then president Bill Clinton when he said 'Mr. Clinton better watch out if he comes down here (North Carolina). He'd better have a bodyguard'.[26]

The following day, he said:

I made a mistake last evening which I shall not repeat. In an informal telephone interview with a local reporter I made an offhand remark…Of course I didn’t expect to be taken literally when, to emphasize the cost and concerns I am hearing, I far too casually suggested that the President might need a bodyguard, or words to that effect.[12]


Jesse Helms continued to work on his humanitarian causes after leaving office until he became incapacitated. Since then others continue his work in his name. His approach encourages individual and organization charity rather than government intervention.[27]

Social Clubs

Jesse Helms was a Freemason.[28][29][30][31] He was also a member of the Rotary Club.[32]

Work for Americans held captive

On December 5, 1991, Senator Helms wrote to Russian President Boris Yeltsin concerning U.S. servicemen who were POWs or MIAs. "The status of thousands and thousands of American servicemen who are held by Soviet and other Communist forces, and who were never repatriated after every major war this century, is of grave concern to the American people." Yeltsin would ultimately respond with a statement made on June 15, 1992, while being interviewed aboard his presidential jet on his way to the United States, "Our archives have shown that it is true — some of them were transferred to the territory of the U.S.S.R. and were kept in labor camps... We can only surmise that some of them may still be alive."

Korean Airlines Flight 007

On December 10, just five days after Senator Helms had written Yeltsin concerning American servicemen, he again wrote to Yeltsin, this time concerning KAL 007 shot down by the Soviets just west of Sakhalin Island on Sept. 1, 1983, "One of the greatest tragedies of the Cold War was the shoot-down of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 by the Armed Forces of what was then the Soviet Union on September 1, 1983. . . The KAL-007 tragedy was one of the most tense incidences of the entire Cold War. However, now that relations between our two nations have improved substantially, I believe that it is time to resolve the mysteries surrounding this event. Clearing the air on this issue could help further to improve relations [3]." Yeltsin would ultimately respond on January 8, 1992 by handing over to the International Civil Aviation Organization what the Russians had for so many years denied possessing: the tapes of the KAL 007's "Black Box" (its Digital Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder). With the return of the tapes, Yeltsin would hand over the real-time Soviet military communications of the shootdown requested by Helms, reopening the question about the fate of KAL 007 and its passengers (See KAL 007: Timeline of Interception and Shootdown for the reconstruction of KAL 007's flight after the attack based on these military communications)

Helms on various occasions expressed pointed concern for the fate of the passengers of KAL 007. Here are the interrogaties he had addressed to Yeltsin, expressing that concern with pointed reference to Congressman Larry McDonald, passenger aboard the flight:

"From Soviet reports of the incident, please provide

a) A list of the names of any living passengers and crew members from the airplane;

b) A list of missing passengers and crew;

c) A list of dead passengers and crew;

d) A list and explanation of what happened to the bodies of any dead passengers and crew;

Please provide detailed information on the fate of U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald.”

And finally, Helms would add:

1. How many KAL-007 family members and crew are being held in Soviet camps?

2. Please provide a detailed list of the camps containing live passengers and crew, together with a map showing their location [4].

Concerning Stacy (3years) and Noelle (5 years) Grenfell, passengers aboard KAL 007, Senator Helms, who was on sister flight KAL 015 also on the way to Seoul, South Korea to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the U.S. South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, would write:

I’ll never forget that night when that plane was just beside ours at Anchorage airport with two little girls and their parents...I taught them, among other things, to say I love you in deaf language, and the last thing they did when they turned the corner was stick up their little hands and tell me they loved me. [5]


Helms and his conservative values can be summed up in his own words: "Compromise, hell!" Helms said. "That's what has happened to us all down the line -- and that's the very cause of our woes."[18]


  • "If freedom is right and tyranny is wrong, why should those who believe in freedom treat it as if it were a roll of bologna to be bartered a slice at a time?"[33]


  • 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

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. Fiction or Truth: Correcting myths about Senator Helms
  4. Jesse Helms: Polarizer, not a compromiser, USA Today
  5. Conservative icon Jesse Helms dead at 86
  6. 6.0 6.1 The voice in the ad stated, "You needed that job and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is."Longtime Sen. Jesse Helms Was Conservative Purist, NPR
  8. Former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms Dies at 86, Fox News
  9. Jesse Helms Dies at 86; Conservative Force in the Senate, The New York Times
  10. Jesse Helms quotes on life and politics, USA Today
  11. Christensen: Jesse and Dot Helms, a newsroom romance
  12. 12.0 12.1
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3
  16. Ex-Sen. Jesse Helms dies at 86, CNN
  17. Jesse Helms, Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir (2005)
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Jesse Helms: To mold a nation (Three decades of political soul )
  19. The Church and the RFRA, National Review
  20. [1]
  21. Why Senator Jesse Helms voted against the RFRA of 1993
  22. Helms, others cautious of religious freedom act's 'new rights'
  26. The Columbia World of Quotations
  28. Jesse Helms: A Complicated Man
  29. S. Brent Morris & Arturo de Hoyos Is it True What They Say About Freemasonry? M. Evans The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group Lanham, Maryland 2010 page 107
  30. The Everything Freemasons Book: Unlock the Secrets of this Ancient and Mysterious Society J. Young & B. Karg 2006 F+W Media page 132
  32. [2]
  33. Jesse Helms Battled Liberals, Communists

External links