Here is a phrase that is never used to describe good people: a product of their time.
It’s a familiar phrase, generally used to describe those who achieved greatness at terrible cost to other people, and as such one that accurately describes, say, three-fourths of the 20th century’s defining figures, with that percentage increasing with each century you go back. More than a worn-out phrase, though, it’s a cop-out. It’s a condemnation of sorts, but it’s mostly an elision and an excuse.
Jesse Helms was not a product of his time. He was born in Monroe, North Carolina, with a specific purpose, one so clear that when you trace your finger back along his life path you suck in your breath with each update and shift in your chair, because it’s so plainly clear that there was only ever one path for “the boll weevil in the cotton patch,” as Bill Link calls him in his Helms biography, Righteous Warrior. Helms was never going to be just a newspaper editor, or a career military man, or a personality at a radio station, or a race-baiting politician. He was always and only going to be Jesse Helms. He would be the hell-raiser, the road block, Senator No, the New Republican, the modern conservative stripped of all external niceties.
The story of North Carolina’s present state of affairs is not, of course, just about Jesse Helms. The triumph of extremism in the state was also made possible in part by decades of middle-ground politics, the sort of meliorative incrementalism long hailed as the reasonable approach to ending the South’s race-based caste system. The vaunted progressive leaders of that era, like the vaunted progressive leaders of ours, consistently made concessions; they were being reasonable, after all. And every time, those concessions were where the conservative faction burrowed, drilling further to create a self-widening chasm between the voter bases.
There was no one person better at running this con, or more influential at it, than the man from Monroe, who was as unique a case as exists in modern political history. Had he been born a decade earlier or later, he may have slipped back amongst the crowd, and the crowd he would’ve slipped back into, the uber-conservative faction of American politics, never would have come close to realizing its potential. In mastering the craft of using cultural mores and media savvy to convince North Carolinians to vote against their long-term economic self-interests, he is unequaled. In 1972, and then again in 1980, Helms led a southern wave of Old South conservatism against an encroaching New South culture, spurring one of the most stark rightward shifts this country has ever witnessed. His commitment to these views led to his legacy being written off as the last of a dying breed of up-front racists; in fact, he was not the end, but the only man capable of bridging a gap so those same views could live on for decades to come, just slightly below the surface, before finally becoming the dominant strain in national politics.
Helms died just 10 years ago. It may be that the wound is still healing, that it is too soon to expect the citizens of the Rip Van Winkle State to completely reconsider the legacy of a man synonymous with southern conservatism. But doing the painful work of reflecting on his life and his actions as media giant and libertarian icon is an exercise North Carolinians need to undergo, and soon. Because every day, the state looks more and more like him, and, frankly, it’s a fucking nightmare.
You find your finger running back and forth across party lines when you try and trace the heart of the conservative movement back through the decades in North Carolina.
It’s a practice that proves equal parts illuminating and frustrating. It’s annoying in that it allows partisan dolts on both sides an opportunity to dig at the other party for also being racist and sexist by way of associating with the social causes that have attached themselves to American conservatism. It’s useful in that it quickly dismantles any notions you have of a political party being capital-g Good and then bashes any lingering questions of “Well, what if they’re fiscally conservative but socially liberal?” with a sledgehammer.
North Carolina was a one-party state, long in the pocket of Democrats, dating back to the infamous 1898 election that ushered white supremacists into state and local offices following a brief period of interracial politics. (This is a lot of history to pack into one sentence, but just hold tight.)
For the next 70-odd years, the conservative movement cloaked itself within the Democratic Party in the form of unofficial factions. Every now and again, a populist railing against Big Business would find his way to the governor’s chair or a Senate seat, but for the most part, moderate centrism and conservatism battled for the ruling chairs in the state’s politics. History has been slow to reveal some of the lingering ills picked up during the state’s incremental improvements to race relations and public education, largely because, in reflection, what were once heralded as monumental achievements turned out to only seem impressive because the rest of the South was a horror show. It was within this split, one-party political atmosphere, in the small town of Monroe, that Jesse Helms entered the world.
Jesse Helms Jr. was born to Ethel, a housewife, and Jesse Sr., a Monroe police officer who was known around town as “Mr. Jesse.” Throughout his childhood, Mr. Jesse and Ethel attended First Baptist Church, and they ensured their son would take his schoolwork and professional goals seriously early on. Helms started working at local newspapers when he was in grade school, and was among the state’s best high school tuba players, even winning a statewide competition. Together, Ethel and Mr. Jesse raised their son in a strict, caring, and lily-white environment.
Just as Helms learned the scales and the Ten Commandments and AP style, he too learned how to differentiate among and within the races, and how to manipulate American public service positions to do so. According to Timothy Tyson’s biography of civil rights leader Robert Williams, who grew up in Monroe at the same time as Helms, Mr. Jesse was known to abuse his police powers, specifically in against the town’s African-American citizens. When Williams was 11 years old, he personally witnessed Helms’s father abuse a black woman while on-duty, saying Helms Sr. beat her with closed fists and then “dragged her off to the nearby jailhouse, her dress up over her head, the same way that a caveman would club and drag his sexual prey,” adding that he still remembered “her tortured screams as her flesh was ground away from the friction of the concrete.”
Such life lessons tend to stick with you.
We’ll circle back to his professional path in a bit—the newspaper and radio gigs, his time at the conservative fountain that was Wake Forest University, his stint doing propaganda for the military—but for now, what you need to know is that much of what allowed and motivated Helms to thrive and innovate within these fields was having been a young, fired-up conservative practically from birth.
After spending his initial professional years on the sidelines, whispering concerns of Communism and race-mingling amongst his closest allies and shouting them at his listeners at the Raleigh radio station WRAL, Helms was prepared to throw off his journalistic shackles and help move forward a blindingly racist and constrainedly pro-American conservative cause. Luckily for him, the stars aligned in 1950; it was then, in North Carolina, that both the Democratic Party and Jesse Helms were faced with a test.
The Graham-Smith election was the perfect example of the political breadth of the Democratic Party in North Carolina and the South. Frank Porter Graham is known, at least in the Tar Heel State, as one of the true progressive leaders of the early 20th century. The former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill president had been appointed by Governor W. Kerr Scott, a rural populist, to a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 1949, enraging all those across the state with any bone-deep disdain for the concepts of integration or left-ish policies, which turned out to be quite a few folks. Interestingly enough, though, Jesse Helms was among those that looked up to Graham the man, just not Graham the politician. After a year of service in Washington, Graham was up for election, as his predecessor’s term had come to an end. His main competitor, the conservative Democrat Willis Smith, had a message he believed could knock Kerr Scott’s growing semi-progressive coalition off its tracks.
Graham was a fervent promoter of higher education, freedom of speech, (separate but) “equal” education for the state’s black citizens, and basic rights for organized labor. He’d made national news in 1934 when he bailed out a former UNC student named Alton Lawrence, a member of the Socialist Party who was arrested for helping textile workers in High Point with their union organizing efforts.
Then there was Smith. The president of the American Bar Association, Smith embodied Helms’s newfound conservatism to a tee, boasting a strict anti-Communist, anti-integration platform. Helms had always leaned conservative and nationalistic, but his zealous conversion to reactionary politics was fueled by A.J. Fletcher, his boss at WRAL, as well as Helms’s new wife, Dot, and his father-in-law, Jacob Cole, a landlord that owned properties in some of Raleigh’s poorest areas.
Graham supposedly brought Helms in ahead of the campaign and asked him to serve as his publicity director. The way Helms later told it, the choice between the two candidates tore him apart. On the one hand, there was Graham, a longtime mentor and friend to Helms; on the other, a cookie-cutter Old South conservative candidate in Smith. The moment may seem like a potential crossroads—a space, where one might ask what could have been had a young Helms used his media talents in tandem with Graham. But by this time, the decision was already made. It just hurt Helms to inform the man he looked up to.
The Monroe native couldn’t bring himself to betray the cause of his boss, his friends, his wife, and his wife’s family, a cause that would very quickly become his own within the coming months, and one that would remain his professional life’s sole purpose for the next 58 years. After hearing his mentor out, Helms turned Graham down and threw his support behind his new political partner.
And that’s about the end of the pleasantries.
The following campaign story is unique, and yet its structure would live on and repeat itself for the next five decades, thanks to Jesse Helms—the same plot recurring with different lines and actors.
The Smith-Graham campaign was one of the nastiest ever run in North Carolina history. Smith remained on the attack, first going after Graham on the issue of communism. He derided Graham as an ardent communist sympathizer and pointed to Graham’s support of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Committee. Smith also played the race card at every turn—he had his campaign workers send postcards “from” the NAACP to white neighborhoods and towns, asking them to vote for Graham.
The white people of North Carolina were at this point only just beginning to contemplate the idea of state and federal governments acting in the interest of their African American neighbors. A great many North Carolinians, Helms included, lived and grew up in small towns that were strictly segregated by both police and civilian forces like the KKK, but also by most families and businesses.
The eastern part of the state—Helms’s main audience for his show on WRAL—remained largely rural. For so long, the insularity of rural communities encouraged limited contact with your literal neighbors, let alone black or Native American people that lived a couple miles away. Farming families tended to live in clusters, and created micro-communities in which the majority of your day was spent working or playing alongside siblings and cousins. Churches were community centers and schools regularly graduated fewer than 25 people per class. In these stretches of the state, change was not an easy thing to contemplate, and almost impossible to see.
At first blush, it seemed as though Graham and the state’s conscience won out. The UNC legend claimed the first vote on May 27 by a plurality, but not a majority, winning with just under 49 percent of the vote to Smith’s 40.5. By state law, though, Smith had the legal right to call for a runoff. He was initially going to throw in the towel—according to the book Frank Porter Graham and the 1950 Senate Race in North Carolina, Smith told his publicity director, Hoover Adams, to send a letter of congratulations to Graham on June 6—but before the letter could be sent, along came Jesse Helms.
The Monroe native quickly helped round up a collection of Smith’s most ardent advisers. The group met in private and agreed on a plan to convince Smith to fight for the runoff. Race-baiting had worked so well thus far, and as fate would have it, the Supreme Court was about to serve the Smith campaign a kerosense-soaked rag and a match.
In the case Sweatt v. Painter, the court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional in the case of Herman Sweatt, a black man who had been denied entry to the law school at the University of Texas. That ruling came down June 5, the day before Smith had contemplated throwing the towel in. The group of advisers—especially a hungry, young Helms, who already understood precisely how to press a hot-button topic with listeners—realized that a final, aggressive blitz over the short course of a couple weeks with a hard line on integration just might be enough to take Smith to the Senate.
While part of the delegation went to plead with Smith, Helms phoned Fletcher at WRAL and asked him to run 30-second ads that Helms himself had personally written “every ten or fifteen minutes.” The ads called for all of Smith’s supporters to show up at his Raleigh home that night, per Bill Link’s biography of Helms. Accounts at the time said the “Citizens Committee for Willis Smith” paid for the spots, but Link reported that the funding came straight from Helms and Fletcher themselves. By 9 p.m. on the night of June 6, 120 people stood on Willis Smith’s lawn; by 11 p.m., the number was reportedly closing in on 400. The next day, Smith called for the runoff.
The following 17 days, even by 1950 campaign standards, were vicious.
Smith’s ad team went on the offensive and rolled out every race-baiting tactic they could. His “WHITE PEOPLE WAKE UP” ad asked citizens if they favored the “mingling of the races” and promised to “uphold the traditions of the South.” Smith constantly reminded his white constituents of the black “bloc vote” that Graham was counting on, while the candidate himself continued to lean heavily on anti-Communist rhetoric, claiming that Graham was in favor of the expanding and intrusive federal government over state’s rights. According to Link, Smith’s supporters went so far as to carry around pictures in their wallets that had Graham’s wife’s face pasted onto a picture of a white woman dancing with a black man.
And while Helms maintained for decades that he was simply a radio man and not officially involved in Smith’s campaign, the truth is that he visited Smith’s office almost every day, sat in on strategy meetings, and helped write Smith’s ads. According to Link, Adams wrote to Helms after the election, “I know of no one who made a greater contribution of time and assistance.”
It worked. The Alton Lawrence case didn’t play all that well for Graham, who was tepid and very much on the defensive in the face of Smith’s full-throated shamelessness. Smith won the June 24 primary runoff by 20,000 votes, and when he inevitably defeated his Republican opponent in general election, he named none other than Jesse Helms as his administrative assistant.
The boy from Monroe was off the sidelines and a player the world of conservative politics.
Before he became the face of a conservative movement that shifted both major American parties to the right, Jesse Helms was a journalist.
According to Link, the newspaper bug bit Helms early. He was nine years old when he was hired to sweep floors and fold papers at two of his hometown outlets, the Monroe Journal and the Monroe Enquirer. It was at the Journal, under the tutelage of Roland Beasley, that Helms earned his first byline; he covered high school sports. His passion for the craft led him to carry around a notebook at all times and he was nicknamed “the scribe” by his high school classmates. In his senior year, they also voted him “most obnoxious,” per Link.
While in college at Wake Forest—the private Baptist university which was central to the state’s mid-century conservative movement—Helms picked up a job for the Raleigh Times. The paper was a much smaller operation than the News & Observer, which editor and publisher Josephus Daniels had turned into the capital city’s top paper. Helms picked up some N&O bylines as well, but at the Times, he had more leeway over what he could cover. Ironically enough, according to Ernest Ferguson’s Helms biography, Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms, Helms was only able to afford school because he obtained a government-paid job through the WPA. But thanks to Pearl Harbor, Helms would never graduate college.
The day after Japan sank four U.S. battleships, Helms volunteered for the Navy; he was assigned to be a recruiter, penning a column in the Wilmington Star’s morning edition and honing his speaking skills by delivering speeches to Navy recruits and on radio broadcasts.
In April 1946, after he’d been discharged and served a year as city editor back at the Times, Helms accepted a new role as program director and news editor of WCBT, a radio station in the mill town of Roanoke Rapids. Helms was free to speak on whatever issues that he found intriguing, and it was at WCBT that he took the first step toward becoming one of the state’s dominant media figures during the 1950s and 1960s. Helms used his own morning show, Rise and Shine, to get the locals “riled,” Link writes, but rarely touched on political issues.
When Helms left WCBT after two years, for the role of news director at A.J. Fletcher’s WRAL, he was entering a very different environment. Fletcher obtained both FCC and FM licenses for his station in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and quickly found a niche in the local market. One of the first radio stations to regularly cover farming news, WRAL had a strong base among the farmers in eastern North Carolina, or at least the ones that did well enough to afford radios. (The station’s farming coverage ended for good in 2003, after the death of the renowned reporter Dan Wilkinson; his father, Ray, had been WRAL’s main farm reporter for decades before he took over.)
As you track him from profession to profession, it’s hard to not, in a begrudging fashion, respect Helms’s uncanny foresight. This was not a man who failed upwards, but one who was constantly pushing to be a frontiersman. He operated best when he was standing out alone at the head of a movement, be it technological or ideological, because he understood the simple fact that just because the American public may not fully understand the mechanisms of innovation, it is almost always drawn to it. By embodying this—by figuring out how to not just have a radio show but a unique media platform—Helms beat the curve in every step of his career.
Helms led a run-of-the-mill radio show at WRAL for the first two years, but the 1948 election of Kerr Scott awakened something inside him. By 1950, Helms was firmly and vociferously against Scott, and aligned with conservative Democrats who sought to limit the state and federal government assistance Scott fought to provide for the farming community. Helms was an influential part of that coalition, but he came to chafe under the limitations of local media. And after he stepped up to actually oppose his governor’s hand-picked senator and Graham went down in that 1950 runoff, Helms took the opportunity to join Willis Smith’s staff in Washington, D.C. He stayed there for three years.
As it turned out, though, Helms’s time in the nation’s capital wasn’t his goodbye to WRAL. It was training for a comeback and a career that changed the state forever.
Josephus Daniels and his son, Jonathan, were about as giant as giants can get, at least in the North Carolina media sphere.
The Daniels family ran the News & Observer, which was and still is the dominant newspaper in the Raleigh area, from 1894 to 2006. Under their reign, the two Daniels boys used the power of editorials—including a political column called “Under The Dome” that was started in 1934— and the political sway that came with running a top-selling newspaper to secure cushy federal government positions in FDR’s cabinet and staff.
Jonathan spent a large chunk of his childhood in Washington and traveling the globe, removed from the day-to-day realities of life in rural and small-town North Carolina. While a segregationist like his father, Jonathan was considerably more progressive on racial issues than his dear ole dad. In his periodic editorials, Jonathan torched the racial iniquities of the criminal justice system, supported increased funding for black schools and universities, and called on the people of North Carolina to heed the words of the Supreme Court when it began ruling in favor of the NAACP-led charge on civil rights. And Jonathan had been the one to visit Governor Kerr Scott and suggest he tap Graham for the Senate seat the year before.
All of which is to say Jesse Helms just absolutely despised Jonathan Daniels and the way he ran his paper. Helms was never a huge fan of Josephus and his support of business regulations, but at least the elder Daniels was a born-and-bred southerner, perfectly fine with instructing black folks to remain in their place. It was a hatred that, whether real or purely for political theatrics, Helms would carry with him from the Willis Smith campaign all the way through the rest of his life. According to Bryan Thrift’s Jesse Helms’s Politics of Pious Incitement, Helms agreed to be part of a Cold War media group for the military. When he found out he was to report to Jonathan Daniels in 1959, he wrote Georgia Senator Richard Russell the following note: “I do not propose to keep myself in a position wherein I will ever have to take orders from Jonathan Daniels.... I would be almost as willing to work under Khrushchev. There is not a great deal of difference in their views.”
The N&O of Helms’s younger years had been replaced by one that reflected the views of an editor Helms saw as a classic UNC liberal. Helms felt that, like the universities, the state’s major newspapers were leaning too far to the left and were worryingly in line with federal policies he disagreed with all the way to the core of his being. When Daniels wrote the day after Brown V. Board of Education came down in 1954 that the South should put “into practice what the Supreme Court put on paper,” Helms raged against it as the easy opinionating of a privileged boy who had lived a life of luxury, was not raised in the South, and did not really understand or respect its ways. Never mind that Daniels later accused the NAACP of “rocking the boat” when they called for immediate integration; Helms understood that as both a newsman and an entertainer, he had found his heel.
Helms framed the establishment media class as a problem that needed solving; as he would do time after time, he decided that, with some help from his platform at WRAL, he himself was the solution. His boss A.J. Fletcher, likewise an anti-New Deal conservative Democrat who was getting rattled by all this anti-segregation talk, started thinking to himself, What if I could use my radio station to deliver more than news? What if WRAL could become a real political player?
And so the first version of Viewpoint was born.
Jesse Helms was never one to be lost among a sea of desks. That’s not to say he was always a leader, but he was one that didn’t mind standing alone.
Helms served on Willis Smith’s Senate staff for one year. At the time, Smith’s office happened to be right next door to the Senate office of Vice President Richard Nixon. (Both Nixon and Smith graduated from Duke Law School.) In June 1953, Smith, like a strikingly large number of North Carolina politicians of the period, died in office. Helms then spent the summer working as the media advisor on Georgia Senator Richard Russell’s failed 1952 hard-segregationist campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In both roles, the young North Carolinian developed a better understanding of D.C.’s political landscape, but he dearly missed his home state and his old gig at WRAL.
In September 1953, Helms returned to the Tar Heel State to take over as the North Carolina Bankers Association’s executive director, where he would spend the next seven years of his life successfully lobbying for deregulation in the North Carolina General Assembly. More importantly, though, Helms used this time to burrow himself deep into his conservative ideology, slowly growing disgusted with Southern conservatives’ dedication to the Democratic Party. In one instance, in 1957, he wrote a letter to Nixon, a Republican, discreetly inviting him to come speak with about 1,000 of the state’s most important bankers at the Pinehurst golf resort, per Thrift:
“We are not merely, or even primarily, interested in securing a top-flight speaker for the convention. My motive looks ahead to 1960, at which time I feel that North Carolina can and will be persuaded to abandon its prejudicial political partisanship. In short, Mr. Vice President, I hope and pray you will be elected President in 1960, and with North Carolina’s electoral votes in your column.”
While atop the NCBA, Helms was sure to make use of his media talents. He transformed the trade publication Tarheel Banker into the largest banking publication in the nation—doing so by starting a column called “By Jesse Helms,” where he railed against government “intrusions,” or regulations, as they’re more widely known. His work would help pave the path for Charlotte eventually becoming the nation’s second-largest banking hub outside New York City: From 1945 to 1966, commercial banking in North Carolina doubled its total financial resources, from $1.9 billion to $3.6 billion, as well as its deposits, per the 1967 ESC quarterly report.
Banking wasn’t a true passion of Helms’s, but it did irk him to see the state or federal government interfere with the free market, even just 30 years after the Great Depression. It was in this space that he began to warn against the path to federal interventionism and communism in the United States.
In a February 1958 column, Helms criticized the federal funds FDR and Kerr Scott had fought to maintain for the state’s farming community, imploring the U.S. government to “get out of the crutch business—for agriculture, for business, for everybody.” Never mind that low-income farmers in the state overwhelmingly saw the government’s price floor and parity payments as a chance to maintain a steady income in a world that increasingly required credit—Helms wasn’t writing for them, not when it came in the Tarheel Banker, and not when it came to economic policy.
The “liberal media” came in for plenty of criticism as well, with Helms regularly criticizing the Charlotte Observer, News & Observer, and The Greensboro Daily News, often conflating the ideas of opinion columnists with the overall reporting goals of the newspaper. Helms himself knew the difference, of course, but it was an effective bit of muddying. (The distinction between those two sections still seems to confound readers in 2018.)
After four years of successfully running the NCBA, Helms picked up a Raleigh City Council seat. From there, his segregationist views—as a deacon, Helms refused to seat black churchgoers at his and Dot’s place of worship—further turned him against the N&O. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Raleigh to speak in early 1958, Helms wrote a public letter, on NCBA letterhead no less, to the Raleigh city manager warning that King’s presence might result in “a blot on the good name of Raleigh.” He didn’t say this outright as his view, of course, but instead provided the thinnest of shields by feigning concern that maybe a local Raleigh citizen might act out against King.
But as a city councilman, Helms was doing more than just raving about the Civil Rights movement. He railed against the power of annexation given to North Carolina’s cities. Helms wrote and gave impassioned addresses at the council saying that the suburbs, where people moved to commute to the city but live with more space, should be taxed as city-dwellers, per Thrift, for they would not have the means or desire to live in those areas were there no cities. But he did not want the cities, and in effect their governments, to be able to expand and increase taxes and services on everyone at will. As Thrift points out, Raleigh’s annexation powers granted the city ability to expand outward, not just upward, allowed it to avoid higher rates of inner city poverty and income inequality (according to David Rusk’s City Without Suburbs, Raleigh’s borders expanded 550 percent in landmass from 1950–1990).
At the time, he was a loner on the city council and his stands rarely meant much. For instance, when a vote came before the council to add fluoride to the city’s drinking water to help increase oral hygiene, Helms found himself the sole dissenting vote, outnumbered six-to-one. The methods he used, down to the closing line, bear a clear lineal relationship to the “Hands off my healthcare!” approach. Per Thrift:
“I feel that fluoridation of water probably would be beneficial for my family, particularly my children. . . . However, I cannot convince myself that it is fundamentally right to force fluoridated water upon those citizens who do not desire it.”
By engaging, but not quite co-signing, the fringe groups within the conservative locals, be it on race or taxation or government, Helms remained in office for two terms. In doubling down on his ideology and vocally establishing himself as the anti-government, anti-tax hike candidate claiming to have the taxpayers in mind, Helms had found his groove.
A.J. Fletcher saw all of this from his WRAL office—the power of Helms’s provocation, the witty pieces in the Banker, the invitation of criticism and controversy—and liked what he saw.
Fletcher was not just a radio station owner with conservative politics. He was also a conservative lawyer, and looking to make good on his investment in WRAL and get in on television while it was still in its nascent stages. To do this, Fletcher understood the product would have to be a little ... different from Helms’s old evening broadcast, News of Raleigh.
Helms helped Fletcher nab the FCC license of a rival station by calling in a favor from his pal Nixon, fighting off an attempt by Daniels to limit the reach of their new show. When Helms arrived, news was not what it is today. If you had a hardline opinion that you wanted to be widely circulated—if, say, you thought the Greensboro sit-ins violated restaurant owners’ rights—you’d have done best to get a job as an editor or op-ed writer at a newspaper. Back in the days of black-and-white and seven channels, television editorials were rare, mainly because it was a pain in the ass to obtain and maintain a license. FCC requirements at the time dictated that show-runners had to provide equal opportunity to respond to both sides of an argument.
Thanks to Helms, Fletcher had his license and a star-in-the-making. And with the help of Fletcher, Helms now had a platform large enough for his voice to make a pronounced change.
For the first two years, that took the form of Facts of the Matter, which unleashed Helms on the middle-and-upper class folks who could afford television sets. He spoke to them about individual rights, and the goals that the conservative movement should set for itself in a time of societal upheaval. When the Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 came a-knockin’, there was Jesse, in both the Tarheel Banker and on the television set, asking his fans, “What, really, is a right?” When Terry Sanford challenged Lake in a race for the governor’s office, Helms was there to defend Lake’s segregationist views as having a constitutional basis. When JFK and Richard Nixon became presidential front-runners, Helms, a personal buddy of Nixon’s, went ahead and derided him for not being conservative enough.
Come October 1960, Helms officially stepped down from his role with the Bankers Association and joined WRAL full-time. His title was executive vice president and he had a brand new show, Viewpoint. The first episode aired on Nov. 21, 1960, and off the bat, JFK, liberalism, and socialism were all in the crosshairs. It was on this show that Helms perfected the craft of melding anti-communism ideals with segregation.
The state was developing a middle class that preferred its racism smooth around the edges, and Helms provided this for them while saying enough to make the eastern part of the state feel reinvigorated It was a new bigotry that proclaimed to be a nationalistic, constitutionally based counter-argument to the growing forces of integration, federal interference, and denial of liberty.
Helms was a wretched, backwards man, but he was also the smartest, or anyway savviest, sumbitch to sit in front of a blinking red light.
A smart person in media gave me a simple piece of advice a few years ago that stuck: “Ride the big one.”
All this means is that when you have a big story, you pursue and push it as aggressively as possible, lest you be scooped or outdone by the competition. I don’t think that man ever met the conservative force from Monroe, but Helms embodied these words of wisdom more than any other media figure I’ve examined since joining the business. He didn’t just understand the issues of his time—communism, liberal public universities, the civil rights movement—but precisely which buttons he needed to press with viewers. He understood when to push, when to pull back, and when to call his bannermen and ride against all three forces of evil, as he saw them.
Jesse Helms was not the average American. He did, though, from his new perch on Viewpoint, command the eyes and ears of the average American at the beginning of television’s rise. It reads as a bit neat to say Viewpoint was Fox News before Fox News, but that is the exact kind of magnitude you’re staring at when looking at his total dominance of the opinionated news programming on television and radio in eastern North Carolina.
The audio of his five-minute rants, which were shown at the opening of every Viewpoint episode, were broadcast on 70 radio stations across North Carolina at least once the following morning. This was a time before there were thousands of television channels with a bevy of partisan networks to choose from. (My parents grew up in Person County, a farming community, during the 1970s, and they say neither had more than six channels on their box TV.) This was the dawn of an era, with the rules and laws being written by the federal government as issues played out in real time. There were no standards save those the TV executives set for themselves and, eventually, those that the FCC would eventually hand down; the actual result of lax enforcement was a completely different story.
Helms used his position to stoke fear, in ways broad and specific. The text was the fear that over-reliance on a government would one day either turn the nation against itself and lead to the hammer and sickle being stitched onto American flags, or at least to tax increases. The subtext was the constant warning of the possibility of a future in which his listeners would lose what they had justly earned to poor people and people of color.
It’s what is now commonly known as the Atwater approach. In his 1984 book, The Two-Party South, Alexander Lamis published an interview with an anonymous Republican operative, since revealed to be Ronald Reagan strategist Lee Atwater, in which he laid out how the national Republican Party evolved its message to fit the sensibilities of its growing base and take over state and federal congresses:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Jesse Helms did not have quite the deft subtextual hand that the Republicans that rose in the 1980s and 1990s possessed; it was never in him. But because of when he rose to power, he never needed it. He just needed to be a slightly more palatable, slightly more eloquent, and slightly more indulgent version of Lake and Smith, which is to say also of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. In this way—by operating on the edge of faux-southern-good-ole-boy gentility and outright racism—he constructed a playbook that, if presented in 2018, would come off as merely that of another cookie-cutter white guy in the modern Republican Party. But when Helms was standing at the forefront, looking out upon nothing but open space and no competition, he wasn’t one among many—he was a new conservative trailblazer, and he embraced it fully.
By 1960, conservative Democrats across the South were finally able to successfully run on platforms that were solidly anti-New Deal and anti-Fair Deal, which caused a great deal of friction when the national candidates for president discounted their right-shifting conservatism and proclaimed support for programs meant to assist the millions struggling through the nation’s industrial transition. For local conservative leaders, like Helms, this opened a door. It’s one thing to throw rocks at the other party, but, if done correctly, one can critique their own national party and make those leaders, not themselves and their constituents, seem out of touch. It’s a game that’s still played regularly; asking a person or a group of people to criticize themselves is and will never be as profitable as telling them their moral pitfalls are actually not problematic at all.
In practice, this meant items like the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Fair Employment Practices Commission, and Brown v. Board of Education were painted by Helms and other conservatives in the South as the federal government violating important social and governmental norms, ignoring a storied history of local and state rule. (Unlike Wallace and Thurmond, Helms never changed his mind or apologized for opposing Brown v. Board and the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.) Helms told this story for 12 years, and it worked magnificently.
Seizing on the issue of the times, Helms tied the leaders of the civil rights movement to communism wherever and whenever he could. From his chair, Helms called for North Carolina schools to reject the federal government’s integration encouragement funds—these later became mandatory, meaning the state’s local-run school systems would lose nearly 15 percent of their annual funding should they refuse to bring black and Native American students into the white schools. It was the very situation, Helms drawled on, that he had warned them about from the beginning.
On Viewpoint, he supported Wallace and Barry Goldwater, and claimed that African Americans should stop their protesting and instead try “hard work, self-reliance, and moral behavior,” pointing to high crime rates. He called the 1964 Civil Rights Act the “most far-reaching, dangerous piece of legislation I ever read.” He proclaimed civil rights activists to be “Trojan horses” for Russia and, in commenting on the movement itself, opined it was “shot through with communists,” per Link. Helms was also, until his death, a dedicated homophobe, and regularly used Viewpoint to point out what he saw as detestable, immoral behavior, debasing the cause of any who would be brave enough to identify as gay in the 1960s. James Baldwin, Helms said, “cannot get his mind out of the sewer, if one my judge by his literary efforts.”
Viewpoint quickly became one of the most popular shows in the state, in part because it was one of the first of its kind. As Gary Pearce, a long-time consultant for four-term Democratic governor Jim Hunt, said in Southern Politics of the 1990s, Helms understood his audience and how to relay his message to them. “He does appeal to a nativist, even racist element in the state that has always been there,” Hunt said before hedging. “I’m not accusing him of being it. I’m saying he appeals to it. Everyone understands he appeals to it.”
In addition to Helms’s crusade against federal government growth and the Civil Rights Movement, the subject that came to dominate his airtime most was the growing liberalization of North Carolina’s flagship university and the oldest public college in the United States: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Long considered the top public university in the nation, Chapel Hill carved out a reputation for fostering intellectual and political freedom in a typically traditionalist state, even sporting a small-but-feisty Communist faction in the late 1930s, per Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie. As Helms staked out his positions and lined up his targets in the early 1960s, UNC became a natural foil.
In October 1966, UNC literature professor Michael Paull assigned his students a paper on the 1681 Andrew Marvell poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” The poem is hardly anything scandalous, even by 1960s standards, but several male student dipshits, after asking if they could write about their own sex lives, turned in essays that an ad hoc UNC committee determined were “vulgar.” The committee foolishly demoted Paull, moving him to the research department. (The committee was only tasked with this because chancellor Carlyle Sitterson was out of town that weekend and simply signed off on their decision when he returned.)
WRAL zeroed in on the story, and Helms had a field day with it. Tying it to a romantic short story published around the same time in the university magazine, Carolina Quarterly, Helms claimed on Viewpoint that the university was without morals or leadership, both at the administrative level and in the classroom.
Daniel Pollitt, who counseled Paull in his role as president of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told the Southern Oral History Program in 1991 that the story was picked up by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which ridiculed the southern institution and its culture for allowing such a inane story to become a scandal. Paull was eventually reinstated after both his students and fellow professors took a stand, but Helms’s work was done.
The UNC administration, with their hands tied by the recent brouhaha over banning communist speakers on campus, looked weak to both the state’s traditionalists and their own student population—the student paper, the Daily Tar Heel, commented that Helms had become “one of the unavoidable evils of our society.” Fifty-two years laters, the Daily’s conclusion still holds up.
Helms continued his run at Viewpoint, and largely stuck to the three C’s that were his bread and butter for the rest of the 1960s, becoming something of the North Carolina version of Clarence Manion. (Go read Messengers of the Right by Nicole Hemmer or check out this podcast if you’re unfamiliar with the radio host and Notre Dame dean partially responsible for Barry Goldwater’s presidential run.) That meant regularly lambasting what he saw as half-measures from the state and federal Democratic parties, cultivating an abiding and aggrieved dissatisfaction within his audience and himself alike, and rejecting Lyndon Johnson’s plans for a Great Society.
Helms was a broad showman and a vicious reactionary, but his message was resonating.
The real switch began in September 1970.
A number of highly intelligent people will tell you that real conservative change first came to Washington in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won re-election in a landslide and lugged 16 new Republican representatives along with him. Others will point to 1994, or 2016, and all will have a point. Simply staring at graphs of congressional party trends won’t show you why or how these landslides came to be.
No, by 1984 the future of the conservative party had already been in Washington for a dozen years. Jesse Helms, a junior senator, was among the group of North Carolinian and Texan conservatives that created their own wave without full national party backing, without complimentary ads from Nixon and his squad, without the money or even full-throated support of the North Carolina Republican Party. His election registered nationally, but only because of what the national media and audience saw as the byproduct—a one-off Republican conservative slipping through while the Democrats picked up two Senate seats and kept a healthy lead over their counterparts in the GOP. Helms was initially cast as an aberration; he wasn’t. He was a reaction, and the future.
A survey by the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Operations asked 1,594 households a series of questions each year from 1966 to 1973 to get a read on the public’s perception of the government. Forty-five percent felt the “rich get richer and poor get poorer” in 1966; 76 percent believed it in 1973. Twenty-six percent believed “people running the country don’t really care what happens to you” in 1966; 55 percent believed it in 1973. As the election of 1972 would show, such dissatisfaction can bubble in the pot for only so long. Sooner or later, the water throws the ruling lid aside and boils over, and people get scalded.
Like the majority of North Carolinians born before the 1970s, Jesse Helms was born into the Democratic Party. It was a one-party system that worked, in a way, because of the distinct factions it contained—it allowed white citizens to still feel like they had a choice, even when there was only one letter next to all the names on the ballot. But the fear-mongering that thrived in the wake of the civil rights movement, the unceasing red scares, and, most importantly, the decision of the national Democratic Party to hew to a new party line that (very, very slowly) began to prioritize its women and minority citizens now that they had the right to vote, ruffled many a feather in the South.
After following his Old South Democratic mentors for decades and attempting to carve out power among the faction of conservative Democrats, Helms realized the future for the conservative movement was not in trying to fight for control of a party losing steam. The voters, the citizens of North Carolina, they saw the same end result: a national party that was disconnected from its conservative and moderate base. They didn’t understand the machine like Helms did, but the moment people feel like they lack control or options—and as the above-cited survey shows, people did—they either tune out completely or get pissed the hell off.
Helms officially changed his membership from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in September 1970. It wasn’t the result of a sudden realization, at least if we’re to believe Helms; rather, it was one that was slowly formed as he saw his time at WRAL coming to a close.
Per a 1968 Viewpoint monologue reviewed by longtime North Carolina journalist Rob Christensen, Helms felt the undercurrent of white conservatism growing stronger and sensed hesitancy from the Democrats.
“Conservatism which was the bedrock upon which the state Democratic Party in North Carolina was years ago built originally, is on the rise again in our state. The people are simply beginning to return to what they have subconsciously believed all along.”
In his 1974 Southern Oral History Program interview, Helms said the tipping point was Richard Nixon’s Sept. 16, 1970 speech at Kansas State University, in which Nixon played to the students’ fears stemming from a recent bombing on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. He advised them to look elsewhere than the federal government for help in solving life’s issues, to take some of the responsibility for themselves.
“It is time for the responsible university and college administrators, faculty, and student leaders to stand up and be counted. Because we must remember only they can save higher education in America. It cannot be saved by Government. If we turn only to Government to save it, then Government will move in and run the colleges and universities, and so the place to save it is here among those, the faculty, the administrators, the student leaders. To attempt to blame Government for all the woes of the universities is rather the fashion these days. But, really, it’s to seek an excuse, not a reason, for their troubles.”
This is a smoothed-over, generalized version of every conservative argument Helms had been making for the past decade on Viewpoint: The government is neither caretaker or maid; it is not here to fix the problems of past governments or societies; if you don’t like it, there’s the door. The only difference was that Helms was willing to openly address skin color and political preference in these critiques without hesitating for fear of national backlash. If Nixon could say these things and reap crowds of fans and the presidency, Helms thought to himself, then maybe a small-town guy from North Carolina with no interest in playing to a mass audience could actually put some weight behind the words, and bring to Washington not just an impression of extreme conservatism but the real thing—actual policies that would begin to reshape the way people viewed the role of the federal and state governments.
In a 1989 interview, per Link, Helms attributed his break-up with the Democratic Party to a conversation he had with his daughter Nancy, who registered as a Republican in 1970. When Jesse asked her why she registered for that party, she responded by saying she’d tell him if he could explain to her why he was still a Democrat.
The importance of Jesse Helms’s commitment to the Republican Party—and, more to the point, his decision to publicly detach from a Democratic Party that had made every political juggernaut in the state for the past seven decades—cannot be understated. Once again, Helms saw in the GOP a small but capable operation, one where he would have free reign to steer the ship and wouldn’t have to tap-dance to anybody’s tune but his own. There was an establishment faction, naturally, but he was a political frontiersman. And after decades of understanding how to manipulate the machine from the outside, he was ready to climb atop it and command it as he saw fit.
Switching parties was one thing; running for a U.S. Senate seat after years of slinging mud at the people who once had the power to place any individual they wanted in said seat was another thing entirely.
In reflection, what happened on the 1972 election campaign trail, as Helms vied for both a spot in Washington and history, was entirely predictable. At the time, though, it wasn’t a race that could be viewed as the first iteration of what would be an undefeated template for the Helms camp. It was a wildfire, and whether the Democrats or establishment Republicans could put it out was very much up in the air.
The question of whether Helms would even run was the main scuttlebut around WRAL offices throughout 1971. (A.J. Fletcher, ever the businessman, adamantly opposed his top money-maker leaving WRAL and entering the world of national politics, but Helms was never one to be bound by a boss, a party, or an implied set of rules.) One of the main pushes came from a small beef that Helms started in one of his final Viewpoint segments.
Earlier that year, Senator B. Everett Jordan eschewed Helms’s personal appeal to abstain from a vote on the appointment of Earl Butz for the role of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, instead voting against his appointment. It was a move that made sense for a North Carolina senator—Butz was a proponent of corporate farming and advocated tossing out the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and all the protections that the New Deal granted small family farmers. This would happen eventually in 2004, thanks to Helms, George W. Bush, and Congress, but to vote for such a thing in 1971 as a Tar Heel representative would have been both political suicide and a betrayal of the state’s rural communities.
Nonetheless, Helms flayed Jordan on Viewpoint, saying he sided with “top union bosses” and “various minority groups,” according to Link’s book; Helms also grilled him in an open letter, writing that while he maintained him as a friend, he renounced him as a politician.
Jordan lost the Democratic primary to the rising Congressman Nick Galifianakis, now best known as the uncle of the bearded funnyman from The Hangover and Between Two Ferns. Jordan was a candidate with deep pockets and even deeper party connections, and having already run a vicious campaign against a man he liked back during the Smith-Graham race, Helms wasn’t excited to do that so soon again. But with Jordan out of the way, replaced by what he viewed as an easy target, Helms played the moment. He had the name-brand recognition, the support, the message, and, now, the right opponent to unleash them on. At the urging of several Republican strategists and close personal friends, Helms threw his name in the hat for the nomination.
On Feb. 21, 1971, Helms’s Viewpoint run ended, with Fletcher standing in to inform viewers of the change. Had Helms lost, the change would have been temporary and he would have been welcomed back to his old job with open arms. Fletcher and WRAL’s viewers wouldn’t be so lucky.
Helms was never a favorite in the election—he trailed almost the entire time—and a large part of the reason was because while he was also running a race against Galifianakis, he was also trying to pave a path to power within the Republican Party, which upset many of the party’s longstanding members, who clung to what little power they’d managed to scrape together.
The Republican Party, which had long been contained to the mountain regions of the state, had been weak for decades and offered little support for those looking to operate outside the Democratic machine. Helms seized on a longing for new blood, and his small-town conservatism energized a moribund party. He claimed his primary handedly.
The Helms camp understood the uphill battle they faced in getting a state constituency to make a historic party flip, and then worked hard as hell to do it. The campaign outraised and outspent Galifianakis by nearly fourfold.
Helms spent a good chunk of the money placing ads in as many newspapers as his team could get their hands on. But the country boy wasn’t going to win by employing the old-fashioned retail politics that still ruled the land. A hefty chunk of his funds were sent off to New York consultants, who helped Helms craft $100,000 of TV ads and another $16,500 in radio spots, per Link.
On the road, Helms railed against the new forced busing federal initiatives. He slammed national liberals like Ted Kennedy and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. He and his campaign manager Tom Ellis, who worked on the infamous Pearsall Plan, ran a nationalistic attack that painted Galifianakis as an outsider, and they tapped the youthful zealots at Young Americans for Freedom to help run the campaign and spread their message.
None of their would-be external sources of money and support were weighing in yet. The Nixon administration kept their distance, as did the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Jim Holshouser, who was trying to become the first GOP governor of the state in the 20th century. (Holshouser represented the Republican Party of old, and Helms had little use or love for him.)
Though it would later become common, and eventually de rigeur, to run on pushing the national Republican Party to the right, what Helms was doing at the time was new, and seemed risky.
Helms ran a campaign based in a conservative populism that was mostly aesthetic. He appealed to the cultural mores and traditions that rural and small-town voters felt had disappeared from politics and promised them that he would fight for their communities; in reality, his policies, like those of the business-minded Dems, would only go on to hasten their economic demise. Voters may even have known this. But he was promising to bring old Baptist traditions back to the mainstream, and he seemed to mean it.
As the election drew nearer, the attacks grew nastier.
Tom Ellis, a ruthless political operative and fundamentalist even compared to Helms, realized that getting lifelong Democrats to cross the party line and vote for a Republican candidate was not going to be as simple as playing the part of the plain-talking good ol’ boy from the tube. Ellis would later lead Helms’s reelection and campaigning efforts, as well as provide Ronald Reagan a key victory in his losing 1976 campaign that would help him to return as a lead candidate in 1980.
The killing blow came when Helms, who trailed nearly the entire race, employed his last-grasp pseudo-racist Big Ad, a staple of his most infamous future campaigns—in a bevy of full-page ads in small-town papers across the state, Helms ran attack ads with the slogan “He’s One of Us,” a not-so-subtle hint that Galifianakis, despite being a born-and-raised North Carolinian, Marine veteran, and Duke University graduate, was not as worried about the future of North Carolina because his parents were Greek immigrants.
Helms and Ellis had finally found their ticket. On October 22, the Charlotte Observer ran an article entitled “Helms Is Narrowing Gap in Campaign For Senate”; by Nov. 2, the Greensboro Daily News wrote that the two were “Neck And Neck.” Even as it was happening, it seemed implausible.
Come election day, though, Jesse Helms became the first North Carolina Republican to be elected to the Senate in the 20th century, edging Galifianakis by over 120,000 votes.
Holshouser was elected the first North Carolina Republican governor of the century, while Nixon dominated the presidential campaign. By the time the Democrats foisted the limp carcass of George McGovern off the bloody canvass, he’d managed to sway just 29 percent of North Carolina voters.
In a bad year for the national Democratic party, there was arguably no worse news than the senator who’d be bringing a new type of conservatism up I-95. The only problem was that by the time anyone figured it out, he was there to stay.
Even if you’re a casual observer of politics, you know Jesse Helms’s work as a senator.
It is the stuff of legend—either abhorrent or heroic, depending upon your values. He was nothing but consistent, from his first Senate session in 1972 until his death in 2008. Helms remained at the far edges of acceptable behavior and leadership, serving the same purpose that I. Beverly Lake and Willis Smith served for North Carolina Democrats. In him, Republicans had a 30-year senator who would unabashedly say the things they whispered in private on the Senate floor, loud and clear for the public record. By comparison, Helms allowed both Republicans and Democrats to seem moderate and reasonable, which is to say that he also gave both parties the cover they needed to silently shift their economic policies to more closely align with his own.
It wasn’t just that he was brash; plenty of southern white men besides Helms had been far brasher and, somehow, far more vile in their goals. It was that he knew precisely how hard to press when it came to his public statements. Don’t forget this: Helms was an entertainer above all else. He didn’t run one of North Carolina’s most popular talk shows for over a decade thanks only to his well-thought-out policies; he dominated because he was as good a showman as race-based libertarianism could produce in those days, and the audience, now constituents, showed up in droves.
But peek behind the curtain, look at his true, steadfast beliefs, and the entertainer suddenly transforms before your eyes into a being that almost doesn’t feel real. This was not a man that wanted to actively help the poor North Carolina millworker or the tobacco field-hand, let alone the poor fella that had any more than a spoonful of melanin in his skin, and God help you if you were gay. Helms didn’t conceal any of this when he was pressed on economic policy, as he was in his 1974 SOHP interview:
“Price controls. The Republican party ought to be against them, because they won’t work, and the free market system is the only thing that is going to work. In gasoline or beef or anything else,” Helms said. “Wage... minimum wages. This is purely political device. Anybody who is honest with himself knows that every time you raise the minimum wage, either on the state level or on the federal level, you do nothing but lop off thousands upon thousands of jobs and put those people out of work. The free market must prevail, and the Republican party, if it’s going to mean anything, has got to take that position.”
It’s unclear whether people heard or listened to the economic policy items in Helms’s stump speech, but what he had to say about race—this man railed against the bus system that would make Charlotte a proud beacon of integration in the South—stuck on impact.
Helms took the time to master the Senate legislative rulebook, understanding precisely how the process worked, and how it could be worked. In 1980, the GOP won a majority in Congress for the first time since 1954. With eight years to his record, Helms served in stints as the chairman of the Senate Commission on Agriculture, where he’d propose a 40 percent cut to food stamps, and later as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. There, he threw America’s political and financial support behind a string of far-right Latin American dictators and fascists, all in the name of opposing the red wave. Notably, he was one of the only senators to go to bat for the fascist regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. After 19-year-old Rodrigo Rojas and his friend Carmen Quintana, a student at the University of Santiago, were doused in lighter fluid and set on fire by Pinochet’s soldiers, Helms tried to defame them and downplay concerns of violence, telling the press, “the boy’s mother was a communist.”
Again, the end results did little good for his constituents back in North Carolina, as the state was in the beginning stages of seeing both its textile and tobacco jobs be consolidated and outsourced. But Helms was already miles ahead of them. Remember, one does not win a Senate seat with hope or sound policy or personality; one does so with cold, hard cash.
Re-enter Helms, the Innovator.
One things Helms and his crew figured out within their first term in Washington is that if they intended to keep coming back, the fundraising money could not flow in solely from North Carolinians. There, you’re allowed only a set number of people that can even afford to send you campaign funds. But across the nation, with conservatism on the rise thanks in part to all the lies the Democrats told about Vietnam; and thanks in part to Nixon, a conservative Republican president who ran on limited government, abused his power, and delivered exactly what his party needed—an ingrained sense of mistrust among the American people in their federal government—Helms and his team saw a massively untapped potential.
Starting in 1973, Helms welded his campaign donation efforts to those of the then-small National Congressional Club, arguably one of the most important internal decisions of his career. Thanks to the work of Helms, the aforementioned campaign manager Tom Ellis, and campaign adviser Carter Wrenn, the NCC dominated fundraising starting around 1979, and would continue to do so for the next 15 years. The NCC was such a money-printing machine because it took a simple, genius three-pronged approach.
The first prong was Helms’s use of amendments and filibusters as fundraising devices. (When I asked Link about this, he called these actions tweets before there was Twitter.) While it seems particularly relevant now given our current president, Helms was at least three decades before his time. An expert in Senate procedural norms, he was part of a group of senators that began objecting to voice votes—ayes or nays that wouldn’t be counted on the official record.
Once they established this as a running occurrence, Helms started slapping riders concerning hot-button topics like forced busing or abortion onto appropriations bills, forcing his opponents across the aisle to speak out and oppose them via a counted, on-the-record vote. The amendments were completely performative, but they served their purpose—to tie the Senate in PR knots and give an otherwise inexperienced politician a national platform, one that could stretch its arms past the South and embrace all those who dreamed of “the old days.” The point wasn’t to initiate serious legislative action, but to show a nationwide base who was fighting for their values (namely, Jesse Helms) and, more importantly, who wasn’t.
The best example of these performative measures is his infamous filibuster against Martin Luther King Day. Helms didn’t overtly focus the Senate’s 16-day filibuster on King’s race; by 1983, the national mood had shifted to the point where old-fashioned rhetoric just wouldn’t fly. Instead, Helms echoed I. Beverly Lake, who commented, “it’s a disgrace to have a state holiday for a man of deplorable character like Martin Luther King.” That was always the game—call MLK a commie sympathizer, an agitator, a womanizer. Helms, more so than Lake or Smith, knew how to stand on the edge, how to wink and nudge and rile up his opponents without ever quite saying something too extreme, at least by the oft-flexible boundaries his party set for him. Helms understood the times, and rather than go the Strom Thurmond route and partially recant his actions, he sought to legitimize them, losing some of the rougher racial-based language he used in Viewpoint and shifting the conversation away from the talk of Negro agitators and on to commie agitators.
The NCC’s second innovation, the cash-in, was realizing the potential for direct mail. The Helms camp learned early on that requests via mass-produced personal letters were a far better investment than costly TV spots, so they poured their funds there. The NCC, or The Club, as it was known, possessed a gigantic roll of addresses and phone numbers that spanned from coast-to-coast. They crowd-sourced their funding across the nation, telling folks any amount would help—the average contribution was around $30, and just five percent of its revenue came from Political Action Committees. (Ted Cruz says that the first political contribution he ever made was a $10 pledge to Helms with his weekly allowance.) Think of this as the inverse of the Bernie Sanders campaign—just, again, 30 years before the Vermont man spread a message that would make Helms’s butt water.
By 1992, the NCC out-raised both national parties, as uber-conservatives across the nation rallied behind Helms, who in the course of 20 years had become arguably the most useful weapon in the Republican arsenal without ever losing the edge that thrust him into the national spotlight in the first place.
The third and final prong was the marriage of public polling and television ads. Throughout the 1980s, the same version of retail politics that dominated prior decades, where much of the legwork that went into a campaign was focused locally, was still putting people in office. But Helms and the NCC saw the future, thanks in large part to Helms’s unique media savviness. They pumped tens of thousands of dollars into airing TV ads, and not just any ads. These were attack ads that would drive a stark reaction out of the viewer no matter what. If you’re looking for the folks that made sure your TV will blare shoddily produced 30-second shit-talking ads every election season, look no further. Helms and the NCC were not just pioneers, they were also really fucking smart about how precise they were with the mud they slung.
The final months of both his 1984 Senate race against Jim Hunt and his 1990 Senate race against Harvey Gantt are remembered as two of the rawest, most manipulative campaigns in modern United States Senate history. Ask an older person in North Carolina about the “Hands” ad and see if they don’t clam the hell up before stuttering about what it meant to finally be heard in D.C.
And the same way North Carolina flirted with Franklin Porter Graham before electing Willis Smith, the state leaned toward Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte and the person that broke Clemson University’s color barrier, throughout the campaign.
The people narrowly chose Helms over Gantt both in 1990 and 1996, all because Helms and his staff at the NCC were seasoned veterans in the art of running an effective last-minute attack ad campaign. They realized that Helms was almost always going to be opposed by at least 40 percent of the voting public, so they focused their efforts on the 10 percent in the middle, the group that could be swayed by something like the “Hands” ad.
Nobody can ever accuse Helms of not being a dedicated student of whatever craft he took up. The man learned and adapted, even if he pulled from the same bag of tricks when he was pressed, the same bag Republicans still find themselves pillaging in 2018.
Jesse Helms was never going to be boring, but like any job, one can only be perceived as a shaker for so long.
As it bore out, in a nation that was inching its way toward social progressivism, Helms had to change—or rather, his targets had to change, a la the black-to-communist critique of MLK. In 1994, he finally earned his long-coveted position of Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, meaning he needed to start acting senatorial, which is a stuffy, bullshit way to say “tone down the racist rhetoric to avoid the day-to-day scandals he once lived for.” He had real power, finally. And yet, it seemed he almost couldn’t help himself.
Helms’s voting record is tens of thousands of votes long and his newsreel of controversial statements is so long that there’s another opus the length of this one to be written parsing them. But I’ve compiled some highlights below, with a focus on the years in the 1990s when Helms was supposedly attempting to act more as an elder statesman than as someone living up to the bombastic Senator No moniker he earned.
- In 1993, his Senate colleague Carol Moseley Braun, an African-American Senator from Illinois, bested him in a floor fight over granting an extension of a patent to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for a design that featured the original Confederate flag. In his losing argument, Helms had the gall to respond, “As far as I know, the race relations in North Carolina—they may not be good in Illinois; I don’t know about that, or Ohio—but in North Carolina, they are fine.” Helms later tried to intimidate her in a Senate elevator by whistling “Dixie.”
- In 1994, he voted against the Violence Against Women Act, otherwise known as HB 3355. When the bill was in its early stages as a wide-ranging crime response bill in 1989, Helms held the legislation from the Senate floor for 11 months on the basis that it granted too much protection to gays and lesbians, claiming the majority of crimes against the LGBTQ community amounted to little more than name-calling, per a University of Miami Law School report.
- In 1995, during an appearance on Larry King Live, a caller heaped praise upon Helms before thanking him for “everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers.” Helms saluted the camera and said, “Whoops, well, thank you, I think.” Again, this shit happened on CNN.
- In 1996, he voted against raising the minimum wage.
- In 1997, he voted to cut senior citizens’ Medicare.
- Starting in 1982, Helms sponsored legislation to create a “National Agriculture Day.” In 1994, he sponsored a similar measure to name a week in March “Small Family Farm Week.” Two years later, in 1996 he voted in favor of the Secretary of Agriculture spending $35.73 billion for fixed, declining payments to farmers from 1996 through 2002. This legislation served as the precursor to the Bush administration’s 2004 bill that completely cut federal funding from small family tobacco farms.
- In 1998, he supported an amendment that allowed an increase in the maximum number of H2A, or temporary agricultural, workers, and created a federal job registry of temporary and seasonal jobs. He paired this with a vote to pass a bill that amended the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to allow employers to form labor-management cooperative organizations with employees without the presence of a union.
This is where it becomes time to talk about Helms being the most homophobic United State senator of the late 20th century. It’s another topic that could be dissected for hours.
Helms was the tip of the spear for the Moral Majority, a group made up of evangelical far-right conservative PACs that was concocted in 1979 by pastor Jerry Falwell. With Falwell fighting to rally support for Helms and his like, the topics of AIDs research, same sex marriages, and military service were all turned into lightning rods. Even after the Moral Majority fell apart, Falwell supported Helms, describing him in 1990 as “a very special man [who] fights with his every breath to stop those who work to tear down the moral fiber of our country.” The friendship also earned Helms a sympathetic writeup by Falwell’s Liberty University when he died.
As Helms accrued new positions and lanes of cash flow, his need for the NCC waned and the group that had raised so much money for the Monroe man disbanded. That’s to say, as his position solidified, Helms did not really need to rail against the increasing rights being drawn up for the LGBTQ community to fire up his base—at least not as hard as he did. But he did so because Jesse Helms, the man, believed every gay man or woman who didn’t recant their sin was damned. There was and is no budging on this; he believed it with every fiber of his being. This is a man who renounced James Baldwin, after all.
Picking Jesse Helms’s most homophobic moments is impossible—there are simply too many options to choose from. Instead of reeling off a bullet-point list of his heinous record, I’d like to review, of the dozens I have sitting in my notes, the most heartbreaking example.
Harry Clarke was among Helms’s biggest supporters in North Carolina in the 1980s—according to his wife, Patsy Clarke, the pair hosted John Birch Society meetings in their house and routinely supported Helms, especially when election time came around. Per the Charlotte Observer, when Harry died in a plane crash in 1987, Helms personally called Patsy on the phone to offer his sympathies.
Seven years later, in 1994, Patsy lost her son, Mark.
Mark was a young North Carolinian, one his parents were proud of and looked forward to watching mature and make a life of his own. Mark was also gay, and he did not tell his parents—he died shortly after contracting the HIV/AIDS virus, leaving Patsy reeling.
As Patsy wrote in Keep Singing, a book she co-authored with Eloise Vaughn, she was aware of Helms’s record on gay rights and AIDS. The man was as much of an enemy as one could be to the LGBTQ community. In 1990, Helms made a heavy push in talks with George H.W. Bush to try and place HIV on the list of diseases that could disqualify a person from being able to enter the United States. The same year, at a campaign speech, Helms instructed his fans to “think about it—homosexuals and lesbians, disgusting people marching in our streets demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other.” In 1993, when Roberta Achtenberg was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Office, Helms called her, in public, as quoted by the Associated Press, “a militant-activist-mean lesbian.”
But maybe, Patsy thought, Helms would be a friend to a friend. She believed that if she, someone he’d contacted because of her family’s fierce financial loyalty to his campaigns, reached out, he might be willing to listen.
What follows is the response Patsy received from Helms when she wrote him and informed him of Mark’s death and asked for him to at least reconsider his stance on restricting AIDS research.
I know Mark’s death was a devastating blow to you. As far as homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not. As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity. I have sympathy for him and for you. But there is no escaping the reality of what happened.
Patsy and Vaughn formed Mothers Against Jesse in Congress and tried their damndest to get Gantt elected when he ran again in 1996; the former Charlotte mayor lost once more to the former talk show host. Four years later in 2000, Helms, citing his old age and nearing meeting with God, made a nice public showing with Bono—yes, that Bono—and voted in favor of funding global AIDS research, specifically to treat mother-to-child transmission in Africa.
The same year, he voted against expanding hate crimes to include gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
Jesse Helms died on July 4, 2008.
He was buried in Raleigh, with the service being held at his church, Hayes-Barton Baptist. All 800 seats were stuffed, and the guest list was a star-studded bunch. Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, spoke at the pulpit, saying Helms regularly carried out “the simple duty of treating other people well.” Vice President Dick Cheney showed up to pay his respects. So too did John McCain’s wife, Cindy, along with North Carolina senators Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole, who was joined by her husband Bob Dole.
But it wasn’t just the conservative faction that showed out. Democratic senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd both made the flight to Durham, as did North Carolina’s Democratic governor Mike Easley. (Biden actually gave the eulogy for Thurmond’s funeral in 2003; in 2014, he was the keynote speaker at a banquet for a MLK Day event.) Pastor Billy Graham released a 174-word statement calling for people to honor Helms. And the North Carolinians that showed out did not dwell or even touch on his policy record, but instead spent time telling the press how Helms made them feel.
McConnell, Biden, North Carolinians, and American conservatives and allies far and wide spent their time remembering how Helms carried himself. The typical line was that he had been a pleasant good ol’ boy with extreme beliefs set in stone, but agree or disagree, at least you knew where he stood.
“I don’t think we have any true statesmen today — I think Jesse was one of the last statesmen the Senate ever had,” said [Ashley] Reid, whose father-in-law used to cut Helms’ hair in Raleigh. “I didn’t totally agree with everything Jesse said. He was controversial. He was polarizing. But I liked the way he stuck to his guns.”
The coming years only emboldened this strain of thought, with any opposition being swiftly punished by those claiming to represent the state. The week after his death, Governor Easley issued a directive for all state buildings to lower their flags to honor Helms. When L.F. Eason, who had logged 29 consecutive years working for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, refused to lower the flag at his small lab building, citing Helms’s record of bigotry, his superior forced him to retire. He was just 51 years old at the time.
The following year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed Resolution 1103, which was drawn up with the stated purpose of “honoring the life and memory of Jesse Helms.”
In August 2017, nine years after Helms had been gone and folks had more time to reconcile his record with his temperament, the conservative faction of the state continued pushing Helms as a legend to be remembered. Republican U.S. House Rep. George Holding blocked Democrat G.K. Butterfield’s attempt to have a Chapel Hill building named after historic Black Wall Street banker and community leader John Harvey. When Holding was asked why he blocked the move, he said it was because Butterfield, the bill’s sponsor, had refused to support a recent bill naming a federal building after Helms. Unlike Eason, Butterfield was not at the mercy of a superior.
“Senator Jesse Helms was repugnant,” Butterfield told the News & Observer. “He demonstrated racist behavior and imposed on North Carolina an image that we have yet to recover from.”
These two stories are important, but more so, they’re a byproduct of the larger issue the state faced in 2008, one that it’s still facing today.
Naturally, the liberal-friendly side of the media seemed willing to call and remember Helms for his political reputation—even the conservative Ross Douthat, a scoop of Duke’s Mayo with a pulse, called him an “awful bigot.” But what’s printed hardly ever lines up with what the majority of what people believe, especially in a South that had been trained for the past 40 years to by Helms to be wary of the big newspapers. Come his death, Jesse Helms had succeeded by implanting modern clones of himself throughout our current political structure.
Helms passed away just two years before a far-right wave, concerned with kneecapping the Affordable Care Act and putting upper-class white concerns at the top of the docket, swept through North Carolina and other state legislatures across the nation. Had the old man lived another 10 years, his view of the General Assembly would have greatly evolved, from one that despised the constancy of the Democratic Party’s presence in Raleigh to one that nodded in approval.
When North Carolina’s conservatives won a majority in the state Senate and House in 2010, for the first time since the 1800s, they did so with Helms’s policies and his approach, just adapted for a 21st century audience.
The North Carolina GOP has bled the public schools, rejected gay marriage and the very concept of a transgender individual, and willfully blocked elderly African Americans (long a Democratic base) from voting. When the voter ID laws the GOP came up with were ruled unconstitutional, it drew up maps specifically to sequester these voters, who were black, Latinx, white, and poor. When those maps didn’t work, they drew even worse ones. All the while, tax breaks were cut to big businesses and unions were attacked viciously in a state already dripping with the literal blood of past activists for labor and equality. And they did it by claiming, to a state hurting for jobs and options, that they were looking out for the taxpayer, just like they’d been trained by Jesse.
This was not an accident. Helms can’t be attributed the blame (or praise) for the actions of today’s conservative party, but he’s there nonetheless, a shadow hovering over every move that’s been made in the 10 years since he left this realm.
The aforementioned George Holding was former legislative counsel for Helms, and one of the heirs to the First Citizens Banks fortune. Helms had actually been friendly with his dad, Robert Holding, when Helms was on the city council and running the Banker’s Association—per Thrift, the elder Holding helped Helms and his soon-to-be campaign manager Tom Ellis with the latter’s run for state senate in 1958. Like Helms and his father, George has spent his years in power fighting for deregulation of the banking sector, specifically for personal monetary gain, which might be the only part that would make Helms blech.
At the federal judicial level, Thomas Farr is up for a federal court position he’ll almost certainly get, despite an Indy Week report detailing his potential involvement with an infamous Helms campaign tactic during his 1990 run against Harvey Gantt, in which the Helms people mailed postcards threatening black voters of legal retribution should they register or vote improperly. Farr, Helms’s campaign attorney, reportedly knew about the plan, though campaign adviser Carter Wrenn, in an open letter to Senator Tillis, claimed Farr was not aware of the letter. (Neat fact: Trump’s judicial nominees are among the least diverse in decades—90 percent of the appointees are white; 79 percent are male.)
Helms’s tactics, once cutting edge, are now the basic preset playlist that every conservative operation cues up, be it a media outlet or a presidential campaign. Fox News is but a 24-hour version of the five-minute Viewpoint editorials Helms gave. The network exists to offer the same option to millions that Helms offered to thousands in North Carolina: a conservative news program where they can hear the news told like they want to hear it. His work in setting the table for Rush Limbaugh’s radio empire of the 1980s and Fox News’ rise throughout the 1990s (and now) might be why Sean Hannity puckered up his lips and smooched the ring throughout his 2006 interview with Helms, calling him “the poster child of modern conservatism.”
In Congress, the Freedom Caucus keeps the spirit of Helms alive and well in the House, providing the stick-in-the-mud blocking actions he perfected while leaders like North Carolina’s Mark Meadows rail against their own party members—Paul Ryan, in this case—for not being conservative enough. Over in his old haunting ground in the Senate, Ted Cruz still remains, completing his daily routine of attempting to siphon off the useful portions of the government, literally in the name of Helms.
Then there was the campaign trail of Donald Trump. I hate making the connection, in part because Helms was actually an intelligent, savvy human being and politician, whereas the Trump version of his tactics were executed in the dumbest possible way, like everything else he does. To deny that they find their birthplace on the 1984 or 1990 Helms campaign trail, though, is to reject the truth out of fear of muddying the waters. Trump heckled the media on hand at rallies and lambasted them as elitist and liberal, just like Helms; he constantly shifted away from policy and stuck to hot-button issues his base feverishly consumed; he used a previously underused medium to subject his opponents to the PR and campaign hell of having to respond to every single thing he wrote or said.
Remember when Trump made a vague threat against Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, saying, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know”? Well, Helms already pulled that one, on a Clinton no less, back in 1994, warning President Bill Clinton against visiting North Carolina: “[Clinton] better watch out if he comes down here [to North Carolina]. He’d better have a bodyguard.” Both men got away by telling the media not to take things so literally.
(Just so we’re clear, Helms, never one to promote those seeking personal or political profit, would be repulsed at the sheer amount of grifting and pocket-stuffing happening in the current administration; and now, probably the foreign policy team, too.)
The myth of Helms ever being the cantankerous old country grandpa of the Senate should have been buried with him deep in the Tar Heel soil, just as should the myth of him being nothing more than a racist blip on the body’s history. Instead, if his death and the past 10 years have proved anything, it’s that this country remains a place where a person can spend a lifetime dedicated to terrible, despicable work, but as long as they shake your hand and smile, they can have a long, thriving career and be buried a hero. Still, Helms goes past that, because the template he created has simply been tweaked and reused to place the new generation of closet racists, homophobes, and religious extremists in public office.
Jesse Helms—through cultural osmosis, subsequent elections, and legislative action—was and is a North Carolina and American legend. He never needed to be a Reagan-esque figure capable of bridging the gap for a new generation of voters unsure who to trust. That was never who he sought to be, even at the end of his Senate career.
By establishing the boundaries of the new conservative movement early on, Helms provided the GOP ample room to flip the South and gift Ronald Reagan the White House and Republicans the U.S. Congress, where they would slash taxes, criticize government welfare spending, and continue meddling in foreign affairs.
Helms was able to do all this for the new Republican Party because he innately knew how to play his audience. In large part, this was because Helms was his audience, and shared many of the same experiences and perspectives, or at least he did at some point in his life. You can run the above votes or quotes by a former small farmer of a rural county or a banker in a small town in North Carolina, and the response will still be one that brushes away the rough edges of “Brother Jesse,” instead pointing to his moral composure in the face of a culture moving farther away from the values of the Christian faith. In Helms, rural and small-town North Carolinians felt they once again had the ear of a man who would protect and respect their culture and their communities; in reality, he represented only the former. Today, they pay daily for what he did to the latter.
It’s awfully easy to criticize the modern North Carolina GOP—they’re gross and objectively bad at their stated jobs and are the source of a bounty of unnecessary suffering. But like Helms, they’re more than their edges; they’re almost geniuses, in their way. They’re efficient and effective, and they’ve tapped into a public outreach model that can weasel its way down to the outright Old South racial views that both defined and sullied Helms’s long-term legacy. They have evolved, if only aesthetically, and their policies have become, at least on a surface-level PR understanding, based in ideology.
Today’s iteration of the GOP does not usually rely on the same overt race-baiting tactics that powered the Helms campaigns. It’s hard to say, given the national leadership’s cozy relationship with white supremacy, but, for the most part, running something like the “Hands” ad nowadays would probably be a bit too much for many suburbanites and rural upper-middle class voters. The GOP knows that overt racism isn’t a winning move, and has instead committed wholeheartedly to a more coded, subtler, subversive racism.
Rhetorically, it has rooted itself in a glib libertarianism rooted in pointing at big numbers in budgets and making worried sounds while ignoring what the studies and reports say their tax incentive packages, Medicaid cuts, and public school gutting will do to the minority constituents they claim to represent. This allows them to continue pandering to the cultural conservative values long held in the eastern counties while still putting money in the pockets of their upper-class base. If the current North Carolina GOP is not a direct descendant of Helms, it still stands fully in his shadow.
In the same way Americans think of FDR or Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, Helms was a transcendent figure; he just wasn’t pretty about it, because he didn’t give a damn about being pretty. He was never pretty. He was a short, stout, balding white man with glasses and a voice that not even his mother would describe as sonorous; he was brilliant, but he was never anything but inelegant. He left glitz and proclamations of high purpose to everyone else in DC, long denouncing any who would use their seat to enrich themselves or others. He’d rather take the nation’s money and support and spread his conservative ideas throughout both this nation and others in Latin and Central America.
He changed the world, almost always for the worst, because he realized, before anyone else, how to play the game. For the most part, as Ted Cruz illustrates, the political reality Helms created is the same one Americans live in today.
Helms managed, almost perfectly, to craft the image of an outside bomb-thrower, someone who could convince the little guy that he was saying to the people in Washington or Raleigh what the little guy had always wanted to say, and that he was being heard. In reality, Helms simply granted them the easiest path available—he told them that they were right and that he agreed with them, and then he hurt them, again and again, and he called it liberty. The liberty to believe what you believe; to attend the school you want to attend; to honor who you want to honor, all without ever having to weigh those desires against the moral or spiritual implications, or even hear the other side.
North Carolina experienced the rightward political changes in 1972 and 2010 that America’s national politics would soon be experiencing in the coming years. Beset by a growing list of scandals that branded nearly every major party leader a corrupt political actor, the Democratic Party, both the DNC and the North Carolina chapter, fell behind. In recent years, conservative movements—first the Tea Party movement, and then the Donald Trump team—revived the campaigning and fundraising trademarks that made Helms a towering icon. In North Carolina and around the country, these reactionaries simply stepped forward and took what the Democrats could no longer hold.
What came next—in 1972 and then 1980; in 2010 and then 2016—shocked some folks, but it probably shouldn’t have. We’ve been down this path before, and know where it goes. Things keep moving in that familiar direction, further into the dark. It’s a long shadow, and we’re not out of it yet.