He was one of only three U.S. Senators with the courage to vote against Bill Clinton's nomination of the radical Ruth Bader Ginsberg to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. He never talked to The New York Times or appeared on any of the Sunday morning talk shows, telling his staff there was no point since none of his North Carolina constituents read that paper or watched those shows. He stood fast against communism in all its forms all over the world. In a debate over federal funding for AIDS research, he railed against the "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct" of homosexuals, saying, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy." And he is largely responsible for giving us the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
He was Jesse Helms, and when he died on the 4th of July, he left enemies and friends alike pondering his legacy. Liberals called him divisive and a racist. Conservatives called him dependable.
If great men rebel against occupying the middle of the road, then Jesse Helms was indeed a great man. He was a stalwart defender of liberty, and he understood the meaning of the word. A journalist and political pundit before running for office himself, Helms wrote in 1959 on compromise in politics: "Compromise, hell! That's what has happened to us all down the line - and that's the very cause of our woes. 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?"
Helms had gained fame across much of North Carolina for his five-minute commentaries at the end of the local nightly news broadcasts. In 1972, after 30 years in print and broadcast journalism, he threw his hat into the ring for a U.S. Senate seat. Formerly a Democrat, he, like so many of his fellow conservative southerners, had switched his allegiance to the Republican Party. He won that race, and went on to win re-election in 1978, 1984, 1990 and 1996. In ill health at the end of his fifth term, Helms retired in 2003 after thirty years in the senate.
Helms was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan for president. When the former California governor decided to challenge the sitting president, Gerald Ford, for the 1976 GOP nomination, Helms pushed hard for Reagan in North Carolina. After suffering several early primary defeats to accidental incumbent Ford, Reagan was ready to drop out. Helms insisted he stay in the race at least until North Carolina. Reagan agreed, and his victory there gave him momentum for additional victories in other primaries and for a close nominating convention. Although Reagan lost the nomination to Ford that year, it set the stage for his triumphant comeback in 1980, when he trounced the incompetent incumbent, Jimmy Carter.
Jesse Helms was a man of conviction, of loyalty and of faith. After his retirement from the senate, he published his memoir, Here's Where I Stand, wherein he likened abortion to the Holocaust and to 9/11. He wrote, "I will never be silent about the death of those who cannot speak for themselves."
For thirty years, through turbulent times, Jesse Helms was a conservative bulwark against the political, cultural and ideological degradation of late 20th Century American society. He loved liberty and did not suffer fools. In a time of trendy change, there were three giant conservatives: Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms. Now they are gone and we are left with John McCain. God help us.