Jesse Helms died on the Fourth of July — a fitting end for a true American patriot.
He was one of the most consequential conservatives of his generation. When North Carolina elected him to the Senate in 1972, for the first of five terms, he was part of a Republican minority. Within even that small band, he was willing to stand alone. His penchant for holding up legislation and casting the only vote against popular bills earned him a nickname that stuck: “Senator No.”
It is easy to rattle off a long list of what Senator No opposed. First and foremost was Communism. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was an aggressive and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union. He refused to overlook the evils of Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. During the 1980s, he led efforts to support Nicaragua’s contra rebels against the Sandinistas and their incipient totalitarianism.
He was against many other things as well: federal funding of obscene art, ineffective aid to foreign governments, and the continual encroachments of Big Government on everyday life. One of the things he was against in the 1960s was, alas, civil rights. His defense of segregation was of course deeply misguided. But is it fair for this error to have been placed in the first sentence of the New York Times’s obituary of him? Certainly liberals have forgiven the pasts of other segregationists, from Sam Ervin to William Fulbright.
Helms’s real offense was a stubborn and victory-making political incorrectness. In 1990, he was running for reelection against Harvey Gantt, a black former mayor of Charlotte. As with many of Helms’s elections, this one was tight. His campaign ran a television advertisement about Gantt’s support for racial preferences in employment and college admissions. It pointed out that these preferences unfairly cost white applicants jobs. Merely pointing out that they cost whites jobs, let alone unfairly, was too much for liberals, who called the ad, and not the policies it addressed, racially divisive.
Given his past, Helms may not have been the best advocate for a message of colorblind equal opportunity, but he was never one to shy away from a fight. Did Helms “oppose civil rights,” as the Times put it? Actually, the Senator No of 1990 merely opposed a certain vision of them.
For many liberals, Helms was an outright villain — a useful bogeyman in their scaremongering direct-mail pitches. Those who got to know him personally, however, became familiar with a man who was unfailingly cordial in his personal dealings. He went out of his way to visit with North Carolinians, especially students who dropped by his office in Washington. He and his wife raised two daughters and also adopted a boy who suffered from cerebral palsy. Another politician might have made a spectacle of this act of generosity. Helms, however, was admirably reticent.
Instead of thinking about what Senator No was against, it might be better to remember what Jesse Helms stood for: freedom for oppressed people around the globe, a strong national defense, balanced budgets, a right to life for the unborn, prayer in schools, and many other causes of mainstream conservatism.
Critically, he was for Ronald Reagan. In 1976, Helms supported Reagan against Gerald Ford, the incumbent Republican president. Reagan’s challenge was floundering before the North Carolina primary. Then Helms and his allies helped deliver their state, breathing life into Reagan’s effort. Although Ford ultimately secured the GOP nomination, Reagan became the party’s heir apparent. It is not far-fetched to believe that without the assistance of Helms in 1976, Reagan would not have won the presidential election in 1980.
That is a worthy legacy for any conservative: to have won one for the Gipper.