RALEIGH – He may well have been the most polarizing figure in the history of North Carolina.
That never mattered to Jesse Helms, the former United States Senator from North Carolina, who died early Friday, July 4.
“Compromise, hell! That’s what has happened to us all down the line n 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 wrote in a now famous 1959 editorial.
That strong stance never left Helms, who served as a United States Senator from North Carolina, winning five terms in office, but never claiming more than 55 percent of the vote in his home state.
“Whether you liked his politics or not, he was a national force able to deliver for his constituents,” North Carolina Governor Mike Easley said. “We last appeared together when the Navy named a submarine after North Carolina at his request.
“He certainly didn’t shy from controversy and you always knew what his positions were,” the Governor continued. “Whether we were working together to stop international drug trafficking or opposing each other on the campaign trail, he was always a gentleman to me.”
Helms, not surprisingly, is remembered with reverence by his fellow Republicans.
“Laura and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our good friend and a great American: Senator Jesse Helms,” President George W. Bush said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Dot, and all the members of the Helms family.
“Throughout his long public career, Senator Jesse Helms was a tireless advocate for the people of North Carolina, a stalwart defender of limited government and free enterprise, a fearless defender of a culture of life, and unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty,” the President added.
President Bush went on to describe Helms as a “kind, decent and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called ‘the miracle of America’.”
U.S. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) was also saddened by Helms’ death.
“Brooke and I are extremely saddened to hear the news of the passing of Jesse Helms,” Burr said. “Jesse was a mentor and good friend and his contributions to North Carolina and to the nation were countless. We will miss him tremendously.”
Fellow Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) echoed Burr’s thoughts.
“Bob and I are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our longtime friend Senator Jesse Helms,” she said. “We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his precious wife, Dot, and their family.
“In succeeding Jesse to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate, I knew I could never replace him, but I continue to strive each day to provide the dedicated constituent service he provided the people of our state for 30 years,” Dole continued. “As my father would say, Jesse was indeed a ‘watchdog’ for North Carolina and for the nation.”
Linda Daves, Chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, found joy in the fact that Helms death came on the day the country celebrates its independence.
“We are saddened to hear of the passing of Senator Helms, but joyful that we can begin the celebration of such a great patriot on the Fourth of July,” Daves said. “Jesse Helms was larger than life and it is entirely fitting that he would join founding father Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as making his last day the Fourth of July.”
Locally, Helms is being remembered as a man who stood for what he believed, whether or not his opinion was popular.
“Senator Helms was a dominant political figure in North Carolina and the United States for 30 years,” Representative Michael H. Wray (D-27) said. “Whether you agreed with him or not and there were many, many times when I didn’t, you knew where he stood.”
Northampton County Economic Development Director Gary Brown served as Governor Jim Hunt’s Field Representative in the 1980s. He remembered Helms as one who stated his beliefs and followed them.
“I’ll always remember Senator Helms as one who stated his principals and fundamental beliefs and was unyielding in his commitment to upholding those values and beliefs and to the best of his ability insuring that those fundamentals were supported in the public policy which guided this nation,” Brown said.
Carl White, the president of Hertford County Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) said Helms would not be remembered fondly by black people or poor people.
“The way I see it, when I look back over his tenure as senator or newspaper man, I can’t see where he was a friend to black people,” White said. “Not only black folks, but he was not a friend to poor people. It seems everything that would help poor people, he was against.”
Helms served in the United States Navy from 1942-1945 and then worked as City Editor of The Raleigh Times. He worked as an administrative assistant to Democratic Senators Willis Smith and Alton Lennon before becoming executive director of the North Carolina Bankers Association.
He rose to political fame doing editorials on WRAL-TV in Raleigh and was first elected to the United States Senate in 1972. During his tenure he served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Agriculture Committee.