Video: Jesse Helms dies at 86

updated 7/4/2008 8:30:31 PM ET 2008-07-05T00:30:31

"Compromise, hell!" Jesse Helms screamed in a 1959 editorial that captured what would become the legacy of his Senate career and his place in the conservative movement.

Jesse Helms mostly was a polarizer, not a compromiser. He would rather win elections by a razor's edge than change his conservative positions.

Many of his colleagues in the congenial Senate "club" sought compromises on the toughest social issues. Jesse Helms wouldn't play along. He relished his nickname as "Senator No," the man who knew the Senate rules so well that he blocked legislation that violated his right-wing principles and nominees he couldn't stomach.

He was often gentlemanly, though. But not negotiable.

With a big smile, he proudly held up a "Senator No" T-shirt for the cameras.

No to civil rights. No to abortion. No to communism. No to the United Nations. No to gay rights. No to arts funding with nakedness. No to school busing. No to the U.S. giving up the Panama Canal. No to a nuclear arms reduction treaty called Salt II.

This was a man who clearly wasn't into political triangulation.

Oddly, Helms, who died on the Fourth of July at age 86, did make a few changes that moderated his image at the end of his 30-year Senate career — but they seem now more like footnotes to the Helms best known as a latter-20th century magnet for attack by liberals.

Path to polarization
Helms' "compromise, hell!" stance is emblematic of an era that will be judged as harshly partisan. He helped pave way to the polarization that plagues the country — and both parties — to this day.

The man who spent his life fighting the left and decrying homosexuality told Christian activists in his last year in the Senate that he'd joined the fight against the worldwide AIDS epidemic. And when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a friendship bloomed with Madeleine Albright, the Clinton administration Secretary of State.

This didn't necessarily mean that the brittle North Carolinian had mellowed. It just made the man whose path always turned right a little more complex, not so easy to read.

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"He was one of the most conservative senators but he wasn't the leader of conservatives in the Senate. He was a leader of conservatives outside the Senate," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But Sabato said Helms' positions would be a major problem today for a GOP that is perceived by many as moving too far to the right.

'Willing to lose'
There's no better indication of Helms' unwillingness to compromise than his willingness to lose elections. His winning percentages in his five Senate terms — from 1972 to 1996 — were 54, 55, 52, 53 and 52. Sabato said Helms may well have lost if he had run again in 2002.

A contemporary in the Senate, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, preceded Helms as the standard-bearer for civil rights opponents. But when Thurmond was threatened with political extinction — winning only 56 percent of the vote in 1978 — he began moderating his views and won 67 and 64 percent of the vote in the next two elections.

Helms "was happily willing to lose," Sabato said. "He was willing to lose gloriously rather than abandon his views and principles."

As a television commentator before running for the Senate, Helms said, "Dr. (Martin Luther) King's outfit ... is heavily laden at the top with leaders of proven records of communism, socialism and sex perversion, as well as other curious behavior." He called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress."

"Senator Helms certainly was no bigot," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday. "He was a man however not into subtlety. You know what he thought about a particular issue. You certainly knew because he was not into the kind of nuance and subtlety that so often divides American politicians."

Helms' greatest political feat was not in the Senate, but in Republican politics. In 1976, he supported Ronald Reagan in the North Carolina primary — not only rescuing Reagan's political career but positioning Reagan for his successful run four years later.

Still, some of his antics in the Senate were legendary.

He alone stopped the nomination of a Republican, then-Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, as ambassador to Mexico because Weld supported medical use of marijuana, abortion rights and gay rights.

In the debate over reauthorizing a domestic AIDS program, Helms tried but failed to prohibit any money from being used to promote homosexuality.

He repeatedly tried to kill the National Endowment for the Arts, but didn't succeed. He believed the agency funded pornography.

In blocking renewal of a health care program for AIDS victims in 1995, Helms railed that the disease was the result of "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct."

In his 2005 World AIDS Day Appeal, though, Helms wrote, "Each of us, all of our churches, must do something. We dare not avert our eyes. In the name of Christ, for the sake of his kingdom, please help."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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