Republicans in North Carolina and throughout the country expressed sadness at the news.
“It’s just incredible that he would die on July 4, the same day of the Declaration of Independence and the same day that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, and he certainly is a patriot in the mold of those great men,” said former North Carolina GOP Rep. Bill Cobey, chairman of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C.
Many were careful to associate themselves more with the 86-year-old’s cordial manner and personal characteristics than his often polarizing politics.
“Today we lost a senator whose stature in Congress had few equals. Senator Jesse Helms was a leading voice and courageous champion for the many causes he believed in,” Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
He earned the nickname “Senator No” for his opposition to Democratic efforts and, at times, Republicans as well. President Reagan once described Helms as “a thorn in my side,” while President Clinton saw dozens of appointments held up by the masterful parliamentary tactician.
“I didn’t come to Washington to be a ‘yes man’ for any president, Democrat or Republican,” he said in an interview in 1989, according to the New York Times. “I didn’t come to Washington to get along and win any popularity contests.”
It was that willingness to do anything to fight for his beliefs that was the hallmark of his career. When Helms left the Senate after 30 years, long-time political observer Earl Black called him “an anachronism.”
“[U]nlike many of the other southern Republicans, Strom Thurmond, for example, who over the course of his career went from being a very staunch segregationist to someone who accepted the reality of racial change… Jesse Helms didn’t do any of that,” Black told the NewsHour, “and I think in that sense, his historical legacy is going to be closely connected to the politics of race, because what Jesse Helms set out to do was to demonstrate that he could win narrow victories in a state like North Carolina as long as he could get 60 to 65 percent of the white vote.”
Those campaigns drew national attention at times, most notably in two bruising campaigns against black Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 and 1996. In the first contest, the Helms campaign ran a television commercial showing a white fist crumbling up a job application, with these words underneath: “You needed that job … but they had to give it to a minority.”
“The tension that he creates, the fear he creates in people, is how he’s won campaigns,” Gantt said several years later.
When Helms left the Senate in 2002, the reaction highlighted the deeply divisive position the senior senator held.
“He was out there talking about the ‘evil empire’ before Reagan and before a lot of Democrats were willing to concede that that was the case. He has spoken clearly about the dictatorship in Cuba, when so many on the left have been sycophants for that dictatorship and apologists for it and refused to tackle it,” conservative activist Grover Norquist told the NewsHour. “They are embarrassed because on the Soviet Union, on Cuba, on Communism in Nicaragua, Jesse Helms was right and they were painfully wrong.”
But for those who opposed him, his departure from the Senate was a point of celebration.
“I think Jesse Helms brought a kind of coarseness and mean-spiritedness and a polarizing style to American politics at a time when most of the rest of the South was becoming more moderate, more conciliatory, more inclusive,” Robert Kutter, co-founder of the liberal American Prospect, said at the time. “I also think that Helms represents a kind of backdoor crude conservatism of the sort that clashes with the Bush administration’s attempt to look more moderate, but then here is Jesse Helms who is out there in his anti-black, anti-homosexual, anti-abortion, anti-foreign kind of politics.”
Born in North Carolina in 1921, Helms attended Wake Forest College in 1941 but never graduated, serving in the Navy as a recruiter during World War II.
Soon after the war he started working in politics, campaigning for segregationist Democrat Willis Smith in 1950.
Throughout his early political career, Helms was a Democrat, but by 1972 he switched parties officially and ran for U.S. Senate as a Republican.
Helms and his wife, Dorothy, married in 1942 and had two daughters. They also adopted a son in 1962 after the child, 9 years old and suffering from cerebral palsy, said in a newspaper article that he wanted parents.