Senator Jesse Helms
Special Report - July 11, 2008
The people of North Carolina lost a great friend and a true statesman on July 4, with the passing of Sen. Jesse Helms. He shares that day with U.S. presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, all who died on our nation’s birthday. His five consecutive terms in the U.S. Senate equals the longest tenure of any Senator from the Tar Heel state. Some have commented that he was the most influential political figure in North Carolina in the 20th century.
One trait that made Sen. Helms such an effective legislator was his ability to separate people and issues. He believed that all people should be treated fairly and with justice. As a longtime Sunday school teacher at Hayes Barton Baptist Church he knew what the scriptures taught and his worldview was distinctly Biblical. His position on issues grew from this understanding.
That is one reason why Sen. Helms staff never had to wonder what the Senator would want to do on an issue. Because of his consistent worldview, policy positions were based on sound principles and they remained firm for decades. He was not one to take a public opinion poll before he took a position. That is one reason why he opposed federal projects, even in his own State, that took land from private property owners, splitting farms and communitiesor projects that seemed to disadvantage particular groups of people. He always wanted to “do the right thing.”
Sen. Helms believed that every individual was created in God’s image and they should have the opportunity to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He did not see that the Federal government should have to interfere in this process by taxing away the wealth and capital needed to create economic activity. In addition, he felt individuals were best able to make decisions in their own lives and they would have more options if they could keep as much of the fruits of their own labor as possible.
Much of Sen. Helm’s opposition to unnecessary government programs never made the headlines, but the ones that did were usually because a program included a moral failure of some type.
His outlook favored the individual and the family. He was one of the first politicians to oppose the Supreme Court decisions of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Not only did he disagree with these rulings, but also he understood the impact abortion would have on our nation. While in the Senate, he took advantage of every opportunity to protect the unborn. He was always on the offense on prolife issuesoffering numerous amendments on bills over the years.
As a Senator, Jesse Helms was a very effective leader. In his early years in the Senate, votes were sometimes 99 in favor and 1 againstthe one being Sen. Helms. Earning the nickname, “Senator NO,” was a badge of honor because he was determined to do the right thing. And a predictable thing happened. Because Sen. Helms stood on principle, others began to look at his reasons and rationale for his positions and they began to do the same. Within a decade, he was voting in the majoritybecause he had helped create one.
Many have commented on his accomplishments on Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He would take on anyone or any organization he believed had policies that were adversarial to the United States. Yet, he often worked to resolve disputes and modify programs with an unusual degree of success.
What are often overlooked are many accomplishments of Sen. Helms while on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, especially during the years he served as chairman. He presided over the creation of two innovative farm bills, sponsored bills to create wilderness areas in the National Forests in North Carolina, and made sure that overall forest policy was compatible with the needs of many citizens and not just a few special interest groups. He worked effectively to curb abuses in the federal food stamp program and oversaw implementation of numerous positive changes in food aid programs, commodity trading and soil conservation programs.
Sen. Helms truly believed that the government was “of the people, by the people and for the people.” He saw himself as a servant and was heard to say, “I love my job, but if a majority of the people of North Carolina don’t agree with my positionsthen I’ll enjoy spending more time with my grandchildren.” Everyone agrees, that Sen. Helm’s constituent service was secondtonone. Even though he knew that not everyone voted for him, he treated him or her as if they did. His goal was to make sure that people were served by their government, and not the other way around.
It has been said that the funeral for Sen. Helms this week was about the man. I would agree with that assessment. There was much more unspoken about his accomplishments as a legislator and statesman than there were words of tribute offered. It’s almost as if those who truly understand the significance of what Sen. Helms did know they can never express in words, the measure of his accomplishments and his impact on millions of lives for the better.
His funeral was attended by the VicePresident, a delegation of U.S. Senators from both parties, the Governor of North Carolina, and numerous members of the General Assembly and other dignitaries. In addition to his large family, there were hundreds of former staff members whom Senator and Mrs. Helms considered part of their extended family. During the private occasions before and after the funeral, many staffers shared stories and remembrances of the innumerable kindnesses done by this gentle man during their time with him.
For the most part, Sen. Helms had been out of the public eye since his retirement from the Senate. His passing marks the closing on a chapter in American history. Our lives are richer and our society a better place because of Jesse Helms. All of us who knew the Senator will miss him.
Note: The author of this article, Bill Brooks, is president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.