WASHINGTON—Jesse Helms, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina who for half a century infuriated liberals with his race-baiting campaign tactics and presidents of both parties with his use of senatorial privilege, died Friday. He was 86.
Helms, who won election to the Senate five times before retiring in 2003, died early Friday at a nursing home in Raleigh, N.C., according to John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C. No cause of death was given, but his family said in 2006 that he had been diagnosed with vascular dementia.
Helms' death: The obituary of former Sen. Jesse Helms in Saturday's Section A incorrectly described the nomination of William F. Weld to be U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Weld was nominated by President Clinton, not President Reagan; his nomination came after he served as governor of Massachusetts, not before. —
FOR THE RECORD:
Helms obituary: The obituary of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in Sunday's Section A said he was the only senator to vote against making the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. The Senate vote on the bill was 78-22. —
"Jesse Helms was a kind, decent and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called 'the Miracle of America.' So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July," President Bush said in a statement Friday.
Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, speaking Friday on MSNBC, put Helms in the company of President Reagan, calling the former senator "the second most important conservative of the second half of the 20th century."
A registered Democrat in the years before he ran for the Senate in 1972, Helms was not the only Southerner of his generation to defect to the Republicans after the Democratic Party championed the cause of civil rights and, as he put it, "veered so far to the left nationally." Nor was he, at his death, the only politician defending the traditional values of a rural South that had long since been urbanized.
But Helms will be remembered as different from his contemporaries in that he was unyielding on issues that were important to him. Unlike other conservatives, such as Mississippi's former Sen. Trent Lott or Georgia's former Rep. Newt Gingrich, who fought for their causes but found ways to reach accord with Democrats, Helms seldom gave in.
"Compromise, hell!" Helms, who acquired the nickname "Senator No," wrote in 1959.
Unlike other symbols of segregation -- such as Alabama's Gov. George C. Wallace and South Carolina's longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond, who eventually recanted their opposition to racial integration -- Helms held firm. He rarely reached out to black voters, who in the 2000 census composed nearly 25% of North Carolina's population.
The key to Helms' longevity was a political strategy that allowed him to win election without appealing to the mainstream. The use of direct mail to solicit campaign funds nationally was pioneered in the 1960s, but Helms perfected the approach. He sought campaign contributions from conservatives nationally, then used their money to air inflammatory advertisements that energized the passions of his conservative base at home.
"He needed the white vote to win," said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University. "To get that, he had to use explicit racial themes. His was a kind of primitive conservatism."
Helms never won with more than 56% of the vote, but he maintained a devoted core constituency.
"He was a loud and clear voice for muscular, principled conservatism," said Whit Ayres, a pollster for many Southern candidates. "He was ideologically consistent, and he didn't bend with the wind."
Often, he was the lone voice of dissent in a Senate of often like-minded members. He fought with his Republican colleagues as often he did against as his Democratic counterparts. He was the only senator to vote against confirming Henry A. Kissinger as secretary of State during the Nixon administration and Frank C. Carlucci as secretary of Defense during the Reagan presidency. And he was the only senator to vote against making the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. His lone dissent came only after he conducted a 16-day filibuster against the King holiday, during which Helms took to the Senate floor to decry the assassinated King, a pacifist and civil rights leader, for his "action-oriented Marxism."
Helms often prevailed by sheer stubbornness, wearing down opponents. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the 1980s, he protected tobacco's federal subsidy against growing pressure from anti-smoking groups. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s, he held up U.S. dues to the United Nations -- $926 million -- until the bureaucratically overgrown organization slimmed down.