The Republican party lost one of its most treasured figures this weekend. North Carolina Senator and noted civil rights foe Jesse Helms died Friday at the age of 86.
Since his early days in the Senate, which date back to 1973, Helms used his position and connections to reinforce the conservative movement. In fact, many attribute his passion as the impetus behind the rise of the right wing in America, particularly his championing of Ronald Reagan:
Helms’ decision to back Ronald Reagan’s upstart bid against President Gerald Ford in 1976 led the struggling California governor to an upset win in the North Carolina primary, setting the stage for his eventual White House win four years later.
“In one sense, the role that Jesse played in that one primary 32 years ago was key to electing a president – which was key to Reagan, which was key to America winning the Cold War,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime political operative in the Helms machine.
Though beloved by Republicans, the left found Helms archaic politics repugnant. Of Helms’ many political sins were his fight against the Civil Rights Amendment, which he took as an affront to the “Southern” way of life, by which he meant state-sanctioned racism. Along the same lines, Helms also fought against establishing Martin Luther King Day, saying that our Congress couldn’t possibly idolize a man who had ties to socialist activists. Helms also used his seemingly bottomless loathing to fight against modern art and, of course, gay rights. Not only did he introduce and support anti-gay legislation, he consistently blamed the homos for AIDS, saying, “I’ve never heard once in this chamber anybody say to the homosexuals, ‘stop what you’re doing.’ If they would stop what they’re doing there would not be one additional case of AIDS in the United States.”
An ideologue through and through, Helms – who left the Senate in 2003, scoffed at party peers who “liberalized” their politics and adapted to changing times. Evangelical leader Billy Graham touched upon Helms’ conservative commitment in a brief public statement:
Jesse Helms, my friend and long-time senator from my home state of North Carolina, was a man of consistent conviction to conservative ideals and courage to faithfully serve God and country based on principle, not popularity or politics.
In the tradition of Presidents Jefferson, Adams and Monroe — who also passed on July 4th — it is fitting that such a patriot who fought for free markets and free people would die on Independence Day. As we celebrate the birth of our nation, I thank God for the blessings we enjoy, which Senator Helms worked so hard to preserve.
Ironically, Helms death counts as a strike against the national conservative movement, which, with the death of Jerry Falwell and now Helms, has yet to find a young champion to lead it into the 21st century. His legacy, however, lives on in North Carolina, where the GOP platform continues to rail against the homos, “Homosexual behavior is not normal and should not be taught as acceptable.” Helms would be proud, we’re sure.