Politics & Government

Debating Helms' legacy: racist reactionary or conservative beacon?

Sen. Jesse Helms speaks to a meeting of the North Carolina Broadcasters Association at the North Raleigh Hilton in Raleigh, North Carolina, Nov. 3, 1997. (Scott Sharpe/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)
Sen. Jesse Helms speaks to a meeting of the North Carolina Broadcasters Association at the North Raleigh Hilton in Raleigh, North Carolina, Nov. 3, 1997. (Scott Sharpe/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

Jesse Helms will probably be remembered as one of the leading figures in the rise of the Republican Party in the South — a person who helped move conservative Democrats to the GOP, according to historians and political experts who watched his career.

To some, Helms is a figure out of the old cotton South — a figure like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond or Alabama Gov. George Wallace — best known for eliciting rebel yells for his unstinting opposition to the civil rights movement.

"The Republican Party co-opted and took over George Wallace's program," said David Goldfield, a professor of Southern history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Jesse Helms was probably one of the leaders in doing this. George Wallace was a little bit raw in his appeal. Republicans cleaned it up and used code words like busing and welfare queens. But everyone knew what was being talked about."

For others, Helms is one of the key figures of the conservative revolution — his place just below the modern conservative pantheon of Sens. Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, President Reagan and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"Jesse Helms was absolutely indispensable," said Lee Edwards, a historian at the Heritage Foundation who has written about the conservative movement.

As in almost everything involving Helms, there are disagreements about his place in history.

Did Helms help create the wave that swept the South or just ride it? Was Helms a throwback to the Dixiecrats who used race to divide people? Or was he a visionary who helped create a conservative renaissance in the country?

There seems to be general agreement that Helms' most lasting contribution was in the early part of his career in the 1970s and early 1980s, rather than his later years, when he gained institutional power, becoming chairman of the Senate foreign relations and agriculture committees.

In those earlier years, Helms helped transform the one-party Democratic South into a Republican stronghold, cobbling together a movement of social conservatives that came to be known as The New Right, while saving Reagan's political career.

Helms was among the first conservative Southern Democrats to switch to the Republican Party. His role model was Thurmond, who switched to the GOP in 1964, six years ahead of Helms.

For years as a television and radio commentator, Helms tapped into North Carolina's small-town, conservative roots even before the Republican wave.

"He understood the climate was changing," said Julian Pleasants, a historian now living in Chapel Hill who has written extensively about Tar Heel politics. "It was never a liberal state, despite people like Terry Sanford and Frank Graham. It was always conservative, and he knew that."

Helms arrived in Washington in 1973 during a low ebb in the conservative movement. Goldwater had been badly defeated a decade earlier, and Nixon was in the middle of the Watergate scandal.

"It was fractured," said Edwards, the author of "The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America." "It's looking around for alternatives. It's talking about a third party. Who is going to be our standard bearer? They needed someone here in Washington, D.C. Jesse Helms always took a point position. No pale pastels for Jesse. It was all bright, primary colors."

Perhaps Helms' most significant contribution occurred in 1976. Reagan had lost five primaries in his contest with President Ford, and there was growing pressure for Reagan to withdraw. But Helms and his political organization, the National Congressional Club, took over the Reagan campaign and delivered North Carolina to Reagan. The victory breathed new life into Reagan's candidacy and propelled him to the White House in 1980.

"If he had lost, that would have been the end of it," Edwards said. "Jesse Helms and his organization were absolutely key."

After 1980, Reagan became the leader of the conservative movement, paving the way for the two George Bushes and the capture of the U.S. House under Gingrich. That meant a diminished role for Helms, even as he gained institutional power.

"At that point, Jesse Helms became somebody who was going to make sure we [conservatives] didn't slip back," Edwards said, "that we would not compromise too much in search for a majority. He still played a role, but not as public as he played before."

A number of historians say Helms' historical image will be tarnished by his opposition to the civil rights movement and the aspirations of black people.

Ernest Furgurson, Helms biographer and a Civil War historian in Washington, D.C., said Helms emerged as other Southern demagogues such as Theodore Bilbo, Eugene and Herman Talmadge and Wallace were disappearing. But Helms brought modern political techniques to the suspenders-snapping crowd.

"It was an overlap of their last days and his first days on the national scene," Furgurson said. "Instead of fading along with them, he continued the tradition. He didn't use the N-word like Wallace, but he didn't have to. Everyone understood it."

The late George Tindall of Chapel Hill, the dean of Southern historians, compared Helms to Thurmond and I. Beverly Lake Sr., the two-time gubernatorial candidate who ran on a segregationist platform in the sixties.

"I don't think it was just race," Tindall said. "He spoke a blunt straightforward language that would have broad appeal among working people."

Tindall said Helms' success distorted North Carolina's image, making the state appear more conservative than it was. Tindall said Helms was a fortunate politician, winning races in 1972 and 1984 because of Republican landslides, beating a weak opponent in 1978 and twice defeating an African-American in a time when no black was elected to the Senate.

"Jesse Helms is one of the luckiest politicians of his generation," Tindall said.

But Goldfield, the professor at UNC-Charlotte, argues that Helms helped sweep away the myths and shed a more realistic light on the state.

"North Carolina is more progressive the further way you get away from it," Goldfield said. "Jesse Helms helped place North Carolina squarely in the South, rather than this idea of North Carolina as a progressive oasis in a sea of reaction. Jesse Helms' prominence had that kind of impact on our image nationally."

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