The story is that Helms and Braun were sharing an elevator in the Senate during the time that Braun and some other colleagues were railing against the use of the Confederate flag as part of state banners. Helms turned to his friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), and said, “Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.” Even Helms defenders don’t doubt the authenticity of the story although they point out that Helms was probably trying to be funny. Needless to say, Braun did not get the joke.
By any measure, Helms was a powerful man in the Senate. He singlehandedly held up American dues paid to the UN until they reformed the budget process and, more importantly, reduced the required contribution by the United States to that body. He also was a Senate leader in preventing normalization of relations with Cuba by sponsoring an amendment with Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) that strengthened the embargo by placing sanctions against foreign companies that did business with Cuba. He also almost singlehandedly derailed granting Most Favored Nation trading status to China.
His fundraising organization, the North Carolina Congressional Club, was one of the biggest boosters of conservative candidates during the 1970s and 80s. Some credit Helms with making Ronald Reagan’s victory possible, but that is almost surely an exaggeration. Helms rescued Reagan’s candidacy in 1976 by helping him to win the North Carolina primary after five straight losses to Gerald Ford, but by 1980, Reagan had wrapped up the nomination by the time the North Carolina primary rolled around. But dozens of conservatives came to Congress riding on Jesse Helm’s money, a feat that Republicans were forever grateful.
Beyond his ability to raise money and his actions as a senator, there is Helms, the conservative bull terrier — some would say a vicious, unprincipled, divisive, Republican attack dog whose race baiting and gay bashing put him beyond the pale. His constant and vitriolic attacks on liberals foreshadowed the preferred medium of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Conservatives point out that Helms was only giving as good as he got. In truth, Helms became a poster boy for liberal fund raisers who constantly invoked his name in appeals for money and portrayed the courtly, modest Helms as the devil incarnate. Helms reveled in his position and gleefully skewered his liberal targets with a mixture of venom and humor.
Who was Jesse Helms? I believe that he was a man out of his time. He was proudly, even ignorantly old fashioned. His manners and mores reflected his 1930s and 40s upbringing, and formulated his attitudes toward race, women, and gays that he stuck with until the end of his political career. Most segregationists of his generation — Wallace, Thurmond, Eastland, Russell — eventually made peace with the government on civil rights and came to accept the “New South.” I’m not entirely sure Helms ever signed the treaty.
That said, there is no denying his large impact on the government in the 1980s and 90s nor the impact of his larger than life personality on the Senate. Unlike some who will be remembered for their accomplishments, Helms will be remembered for his colorful losing battles against everything from trying to deny the Martin Luther King holiday to his unsuccessful fight to cut off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
He stood up for what he believed, and because he became a target of liberals he was loved for it by conservatives. He was seen on the right as a champion of traditional morality, which is probably his real legacy to conservatives.
A complex man with a mixed legacy, Jesse Helms will always be associated with the rise of conservative power in government and a beacon to those who viewed with approval his uncompromising stands on issues.