No love lost: Ted Kennedy's 30-year feud with Jesse Helms

Raleigh News & ObserverAugust 27, 2009 

Ted Kennedy and Jesse Helms were the polar opposites of American politics — the very mention of their names caused neck veins to bulge, voices to crank up a few decibels and spittle to form upon lips.

The two men served together 30 years in the U.S. Senate, and they died almost within a year of one another. Kennedy was the major liberal figure of his generation, as well as a member of one of the country's most famous political families. Helms, the son of a small-town policeman, was part of the rise of conservatism in the last part of the 20th century that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan.

Though Kennedy and Helms were usually courteous, their feud was real. Most often it was Helms who played the aggressor, portraying Kennedy as a liberal bogeyman to help build the conservative movement and to win votes in North Carolina.

Kennedy's personal foibles provided the strait-laced Helms with plenty of ammunition. But Helms' sometimes heavy-handed attacks contributed to his reputation for mean-spiritedness.

Helms was particularly critical of Kennedy's car accident in 1969 that killed passenger Mary Jo Kopechne. In 1973, Helms , who was a decade older than Kennedy, referred to him as the "Chappaquiddick car boy" who was probably "off teaching morality somewhere to a driver's education class."

Helms and Kennedy were on opposites sides of the civil rights debate and, in 1983, they split on whether to make the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday.

Helms said that while there was no evidence that King was a communist, his associations "strongly suggest that King harbored a strong sympathy for the Communist Party and its goals." He recalled that Attorney General Robert Kennedy, during the administration of his older brother, authorized wiretaps on King by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

Helms told Ted Kennedy that his "argument is with his dead brother who was president and his dead brother who was attorney general."

Face red with fury, Kennedy shouted: "I am appalled at this attempt to misappropriate the memory of my brother. If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would be the first person to say that Hoover's reckless campaign against Martin Luther King was a shame and a blot on American history."

Two years later, an art show in Massachusetts featured a satirical piece displaying Helms as a 3-foot-2-inch lawn jockey. Kennedy and his wife visited the show and were said to be much amused.

In 1993, during a hearing on whether to allow immigrants with AIDS to settle in this country, Helms had trouble hearing Kennedy. "Let me adjust my hearing aid. I can't match him in decibels or Jezebels," Helms quipped.

Helms often used Kennedy as fodder during campaigns, either to rally the conservative faithful in stump speeches and ads or in fundraising appeals that characterized Kennedy as the symbol of what was wrong in Washington.

Helms defeated former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990 with the help of a famous ad that said: "Gantt supports Ted Kennedy's racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications."

In their final years, there were signs that even Helms and Kennedy were able to find some sort of peace with each other.

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former Sen. John Edwards, once recalled watching Kennedy help a frail Helms down the stairs in Washington.

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