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4The Daily Tar HeelFriday. February 15. 1985
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Continued from page 1
"My father had a fifth-grade education. Never
made over $7,5(X) in any year of his life. He
was a soul of honor." Helms says, grinning
pleasantly at the thought. "If I had my one wish.
I wish I could be as decent a human being as
Helms remembers what his mother told him
each morining to get his blood stirring. "My
momma used to say, 'Get out of that bed, boy!
You cant make a nickel there." Helms pauses
and says, "They were just great folks."
Perhaps as important in Helms'youth was Ray
W. House, his high school principal who still
lives in Monroe. He was the first person to insist
that Helms aim high, have a vision of power
and work as hard as possible.
House, 79, has no problem remembering
young Jesse a tall, energetic lad who played
the tuba. Besides being principal, teacher and
spiritual leader. House also directed the band.
And because Helms was about the tallest student
in school, he would lay down his tuba and be
the drum major when the band marched.
"They were all grouped together," House says.
"They were in band together. They dated
together. They almost lived together." By "they,"
House refers to Helms, Bud Nance, Hargrove
Bowles, Henry Hall Wilson and Bill Hinson.
While Helms left Monroe and later became
a U.S. senator, his classmates also fared well.
Nance is a retired Navy rear admiral. Wilson
was an aide to President John F. Kennedy and
Gov. Terry Sanford. Bowles was a 1972
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, and Hinson
was one of North Carolina's first oral surgeons.
"I think anybody who went to school under
Ray W. House will testify under oath that he
had a profound influence," Helms says. "There
wasn't any question about whether he loved us
or not or cared for us. He did the best to push
everyone up and ahead."
House downplays the unusual success of his
"They keep saying, 'You had an influence on
us.' Ain't a word of that so," House says. "It's
the old Christian ethic. Families taught it to them.
School teachers didn't. I didn't."
But House and Jesse's parents did teach Jesse
the deep meaning of the word "principle." Today,
his every action is rooted in the principles that
were developed early.
"You have to have certain basic principles,"
Helms says. "And you better be doggone certain
that they're predicated on what's fair, what's
possible, what's equitable and what's honest."
Like the Ten Commandments that guide his
life, Helms' principles are virtually written in
stone. Unyielding. Unchanging. Seldom com
promised, if ever.
Bill Hinson, one of Helms' high school
classmates, says Jesse hasn't changed much over
the years. "He was just never that stubborn in
high school," says Hinson, a native of Monroe
who now lives in High Point.
Helms was a good student but not outstanding.
Boys were ashamed to be good students back
then, House recalls. The girls made A's and the
boys made B's and C's.
But while the girls were cracking the books,
Helms was r working. It was the Depression Jin.
Monroe! in 4h& J930s and in every pthcFtowrT
across America. And following the example of
his hard-working father, Helms worked eagerly
at every job he could find: jerking sodas at Jones
Drug Co., delivering groceries on weekends and
writing sports articles while in high school for
the Monroe Journal. He usually made two or
three dollars a weekend.
A lot has changed in Monroe since Helms
grew up there. Most of the buildings from his
day are gone, including the First Baptist Church
and the pool hall, where most people hung out.
There are five times as many people and ten
times as many cars as there were in the 1930s.
Jesse's old high school has been converted to
an elementary school.
But much of what Helms says and does can
be traced to this small town in the southern
Piedmont of North Carolina, which had only
five registered Republicans in 1938.
"All of Jesse's conservatism is based here,"
A passion for journalism
In 1938, Helms and about 50 others graduated
from Monroe High. Jesse went on to Wingate
College, a small Baptist school just up the road.
In the fall he transferred to Wake Forest College
(then located a few miles
north of Raleigh), where
his love of working in
journalism clashed with
his quest for higher
Jesse left Wake Forest
after a year and never
finished college. (He is
one of a handful of
senators without a col
lege degree.) There are
several ironies related to
tions. A 1938 high
Helms in 1946
pamphlet said he wanted to be a columnist. In
fact, he loved journalism so much he passed up
the chance to finish college. Instead, he took a
sports writing position with a Raleigh newspaper.
Today Helms' biggest complaint is with the
institution he idolized as a youth, the mass
media. He has drawn sharp criticism for his
recent campaign for conservatives to buy control
of CBS-TV, whose news coverage Helms believes
is slanted by liberal journalists.
"The news media in this country constitute
the greatest problem because they are preventing
the American people from really understanding
the issues," Helms says. "The people of this
country; are misled on practically every major
issue that comes down the pike."
And the newspaper that Helms despises today
is the very one where he accepted his first major
reporting job and where he met his wife Dorothy.
A graduate of the UNC School of Journalism,
Dorothy Coble was society editor at The News
and Obervet in Raleigh when she met Jesse. They
were married' in. 1942, soon after Jesse turned
Just meat and potatoes
By I960, Jesse and Dot had settled with their
two daughters into a comfortable two-story brick
house in Raleigh. Jane was 14 and Nancy 11.
Two years later the Helmses adopted Charles,
a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy, after reading a
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Like the Ten Com
mandments that guide his
life, Helms9 principles are
virtually written in stone.
Seldom compromised, if
newspaper article about the Greensboro orphan.
Now Mrs. Helms says the family has forgotten
that Charles was adopted. "He's just like the rest,"
Although her husband is almost always busy,
Mrs. Helms says the two often talk after dinner,
which is usually a simple meal. "Jesse is a meat
and potatoes man," says a frustrated Mrs. Helms.
"He likes steak and french fries. He's not much
on me trying out my new recipes."
The Helmses spend most of the year at their
house m Arlington, Va., which Helms bought
m 193 after winning his first Senate election
Helms lives his work. His daily routine leaves
little time for relaxation and entertainment.
When the Senate is in session, Helms usually
rises at 6 or 6:30 and reads the newspaper while
Dot cooks breakfast. He eats and heads for the
Senate office building in downtown Washington,
a 30- to 45-minute drive, depending on traffic.
If the Senate adjourns on time, Helms will
get home by 7 p.m. and eat dinner with his wife.
Then they usually talk what else? politics.
"I always enjoy hearing what's going on on
the Senate floor that day and the people who
he's met with," Mrs. Helms says. "I'm always
curious." Helms usually works at his desk a
couple of hours before making his usual bedtime:
Helms is not much of a hobby person, his
wife says. His main enjoyment in life is his five
grandchildren, two of whom live next door in
Raleigh with his oldest daughter, Jane. He
watches little TV except for the evening news
and has seen only a few movies. "Patton"
and "The Sound of Music" are among his
He doesn't play cards much any more. He
and his Raleigh political cronies used to gather
for a friendly game of poker 10 cents a bet.
Now and then hell light up an unfiltered Lucky
Strike and take a few puffs.
Conservative philosophy takes root
Soon after Jesse and Dot were married in 1942,
Helms joined the Navy as a specialist first class,
writing press releases on the mainland. When
World War II ended in 1945, Helms was hired
by the Raleigh Times as an assistant city edifor.
But Helms became restless in Raleigh, and he
decided to dabble in another medium radio.
He spent two years as a radio disc jockey in
Roanoke Rapids, N.C., before realizing that he
wasn't cut out for it. He returned to the capital
city in 1948 to work for WRAL radio as a
Helms settled down for a few years and let
his roots take hold. It was in Raleigh that most
people say his political opinions were forged by
such conservatives as A.J. Fletcher, former
owner of WRAL radio and television, and Tom
Ellis, a successful lawyer who now chairs the
Congressional Club. The club was formed to
retire Helms' 1972 campaign debt but has grown
into one of the largest and richest political-action
committees in the nation.
Until 1950, Helms was a relatively unknown
political figure in North Carolina. But that would
With racial and anti-Communist paranoia
running high in North Carolina in 1950, a Raleigh
politician named Willis Smith staged a contro
versial U.S. Senate primary campaign against
Frank Porter Graham, a personable and popular
former UNC president. New York Times
columnist Tom Wicker, some years after the race,
wrote a novel based on the dirty politicking in
which some people say Helms participated.
Graham won the primary but not a majority
of the votes. So Smith was entitled to a runoff,
and Helms took Smith's campaign to the
airwaves. Helms says he plugged for Smith but
denies any part in the deceitful racial tactics that
brought national attention to the Senate race
and confirmed the suspicion that racism was still
breeding in the South.
Smith won. Four years, later, Helms left
Raleigh for Washington to become one of his
Helms and Raleigh roommate Ed Rankin
joining the Navy in 1942.
aides. But Smith died in his fifth year in office,
and Helms returned to his home state, where
he became executive editor of the N.C. Bankers'
Helms had developed a flair for writing in his
early jobs, and it showed in the bankers'
association magazine that Helms edited. -
"Compromise, hell!" he wrote in a 1953 issue
of Tarheel Banker. "That's what has happened
to us all down the line and that's the whole
cause of our woes." Principles such as freedom,
he said, should not be treated as a "roll of bologna
to be bartered a slice at a time."
Helms liked his work. But he still had the itch
for political involvement and in 1957 was elected
to the Raleigh City Council. He served two, two
year terms before leaving the council in 1961.
He went back to work for Fletcher, a media
mogul, who remained a close friend until his
death in 1979. This time Helms experimented
with yet another medium television. Little did
he know that he would become a household
figure as a WRAL-TV editorialist.
Helms attracted a faithful following much like
J.R. Ewing of "Dallas." You either hated Jesse
or you loved him. He attacked liberals and
praised conservatives. He opposed civil rights
legislation and favored segregation. In the spirit
of Joseph McCarthy, he continued to spread the
word throughout the 1960s in his TV editorials
that communism threatened U.S. society.
Where do you stand, Jesse?
. "Only two things in life are certain," so the
saying goes, "death and taxes." But North
Carolinians add a third item: Jesse Helms will
always be conservative. Since his first day in the
Senate in January 1973, Helms has fought for
prayer in the public schools, a constitutional
amendment outlawing abortion, an end to
busing, a strong national defense and protection
of the free enterprise system.
Helms is proud of his bulldog attitude, and
he put it to work during his most recent political
tangle for the Senate with Gov. Jim Hunt.
Many political observers called it the Senate
race of the century. It was a confrontation of
old and new. A battle of Old South politics tinged
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Helms attracted a faith
ful following much like
J.R. Ewing of 'Dallas. 9
You either hated Jesse or
you loved him. He
attacked liberals and
with racial overtones against a progressive New
South of economic growth and booming
university research centers.
Part of Helms' $13.5 million campaign was
a series of radio and television commercials that
portrayed Hunt as two-faced and indecisive. The
commercials, which began airing a year and a
half before the election, ended with Helms asking,
"Where do you stand, Jim?"
All over North Carolina, people mimicked the
.. phrase. It ranked second only A to , Wendy's
catchline, "Where's the beef?"
IBfJre Helms bganHs"! 8-month barrage of
blistering attacks. Hunt led "in public opinion
polls by 52 to 43 percent. Five months before
the election, Helms had overtaken Hunt: 50 to
Hunt said his drop in the polls was because
of Helms' "sleazy, scurrilous ads. . .to tear down
my character and reputation. They have used
so much of them with so much money that they
obviously have an impact."
Hunt was right. In a state where Democrats
hold a 3-to-l margin in registered voters, Helms
was able to defeat a handsome, popular young
governor who was a rising star in the Democratic
Party. There were more "God-fearing conserva
tives" in. North Carolina than most people had
But looking back over Helms' career, his
support of the conservative agenda has often left
him standing all alone in right field. He
remembers the Falkland Islands issue when he
was the only senator to vote against a resolution
aligning the United States with Great Britain.
"It wasn't because I don't like Margaret
Thatcher." Helms recalls. "She's a good friend
of mine. But Maggie was dead wrong about that
thing. That little old piece of real estate down
there wasnt worth the three or four billion dollars
it cost the two countries and the lives of 1,200
It's not difficult to stand alone, he says, even
when the state's second largest newspaper
criticizes his every move. Claude Sitton, Pulitzer
prize-winning editor of The News and Observer,
dubbed Helms "Senator No" during the late
1970s because of his frequent dissenting votes
on key social and economic issues during the
The News and Observer has been a long
standing opponent of Sen. Helms," says editorial
page editor Ferrel Guillory. "He represents a
viewpoint with which we strongly disagree. It
strikes me as rather strange that people would
elect someone who carries out policy that
everyone disagrees with."
Guillory said Helms' 1984 Senate victory was
due partly to his campaign smears of Hunt. And
although Hunt countered with his own negative
ads, Guillory says Helms is an old hand at
political sleaze. Guillory cited the 1950 Smith
campaign and Helms' 1972 Senate race against
Nick Galifianakis, a Durham attorney of Greek
descent. "Jesse Helms: He's one of us," was the
senator's winning slogan. WASPs liked it.
Minorities were angered by it.
How does Helms respond to such criticisms?
"I don't pay any attention to it," he says. "If
you're trying to please everyone in the United
States Senate, you're going to be a flop! YouVe
got to find out what your positions are and justify
them and stand there."
"I am not a racist"
Although he consistently opposes civil rights
legislation and supports segregationist policies,
Helms says he is no racist. Even when he was
the ONLY senator to vote against a national
holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., he
stuck by his guns.
"I am not a racist, and I am not a bigot,"
Helms told reporters who questioned his
filibuster on the King holiday. "Ask any black
that knows me, and they will tell you that I am
The black person who is usually asked is his
former press secretary, Claude Allen. Before
hiring Allen in 1983. Helms' had no blacks on
his 120-member staff. Allen repeatedly backs
Helms' denial, but he recently resigned to take
a press position with the Senate Foreign
"The problem has always been the image that
Jesse Helms works against blacks," Allen says.
"That's just not so." Most blacks are politically
conservative, Allen says, but they think they're
"They rolled out the red carpet for me," Allen
says, but there are no minorities on the senator's
staff now because few wirl apply or inquire about
Some say Helms' attitudes are the product of
living in the South when racism was the fashion.
"Segregation was a way of life," Principal
House recalls. "We couldn't have done anything.
If we would have started a fight against it,
somebody would have shot us. You had to live
like that. But we didn't have malice."
Helms says his motives are often misunder
stood by the press. As an example, he cites his
vote on the Civil Rights Act extension.
He says the press described the act as a bill
"that would make it possible for everyone to
"But it had nothing to do with voting rights,"
Helms counters. "That was already established.
It was instead a wolf in sheep's clothing. It had
a good title, but the guts of it were bad."
Former U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin agrees. In fact,
Ervin agrees with Helms on most constitutional
issues, except school prayer. "He's pretty faithful
to the constitution," says Ervin, 88, who left the
Senate in 1974 to return to his native North
Ervin says he admires Helms for taking firm
stands amid controversies. Ervin also backed
Helms when he opposed the Civil Rights Act
extension. "That act violates the constitution in
about 10 different ways," Ervin says.
But why . can Ervin oppose civil rights
legislation and not be called a racist? UNC
political scientist Thad Beyle says the answer is
"Helms uses race in a political sense to further
his cause or causes," says Beyle, who scrutinized
the Helms-Hunt race.
Before the King holiday bill was voted on in
October 1983, Hunt led Helms by 20 percentage
points in most opinion polls. But after Helms
was spotlighted as the sole holdout on the bill,
the gap closed.
A horse race developed, and Helms nosed
Hunt out. He won the entire state by 80,000
votes and 70,000 of them came from a band
of textile counties populated by lower-class
whites, Beyle says.
Hunt captured 99.8 percent of the black vote,
Helms 0.2 percent. The implications were easy
to read in black and white.
"North Carolinians are not as nice and
progressive as most people would like to
think," Beyle says.
Editor Guillory agrees. Racism was "one piece
of the fabric that allowed Helms to win," Guillory
says. "I don't have the foggiest doubt that race
still moves people."
Running on principles
Although he is always in the middle of such
controversies Helms, .sometimes questions his
own involvement in politics. He admits that he
wanted to leave Washington for good after his
"I didn't want to get into politics in the first
place," Helms says. "I didn't want to run in 1972.
If I had known I was going to be elected, I'm
not so sure I would have run."
So why did Helms seek a third term?
"We (Dot and I) had no intentions of running
again," Helms says. "I would not have run for
a third term except for the fact that conservatives
came to Dot and persuaded her that we might
lose the Senate majority."
Friends say Helms stays in politics not because
of the power and glory but because he cares about
"He's probably one of the most unselfish
people IVe ever met," Hinson says. "His concern
for people started back in high school. He always
wanted to help people with their troubles."
His mentor and confidant paints the same
"Service to fellow man, that's what motivates
Jesse," says House, who talks with Jesse on the
telephone about once every two weeks. "Ill bet
you he's the only one up there (in Washington)
that hasn't made a fortune of it. All he owns
is that house in Raleigh. He doesn't even have
the one in Arlington paid for yet. I reckon he
Others say Helms is nowhere near good
hearted or unselfish. They believe his right-wing
politics threaten per
sonal freedom, perpetu
ate racism and ignore
the majority of the
state's residents. "Jesse
Helms is a disgrace to
North Carolina," says a
tobacco farmer, the
grassroots of Helms'
One of his Washing
ton colleagues, Sen.
Alan Cranston, critic
izes Helms' unpopular
antics. "Since Jesse
Helms in 1S34
Helms started his war
iare against all those who disagree with him,"
Cranston says, "there's a meanness in the Senate
now that I don't think there has been since the
days of Joe McCarthy."
Those who fear Helms' power are looking
nervously to 1988. There is already considerable
speculation about Republican candidates. Near
the top of the list: Jesse Alexander Helms Jr.
Conservatives are looking for a dynamic leader
when Reagan steps down, analyst Beyle says,
and Helms "is likely to be a candidate in 8."
But Helms, his wife and close friends dispel
such talk emphatically. During an interview at
his office, the shortest reply to any question was
"No" when asked if he would seek the Republican
nomination in 1988.
Attempting to sum up his personal motivations
and philosophies, Helms says government would
not be necessary if everyone lived by the Ten
"Moral responsibility is the bedrock of what
I'm talking about, and there's too little of that
today," Helms says sternly, gazing over his horn
"I guess what I care about is being true to
the principles I believe in so that I won't have
to look in the mirror at a guy who has welshed
on a commitment."