Family, admirers lay former senator Jesse Helms to rest

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Mourners who gathered to remember former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms on Tuesday celebrated both sides of his conflicting persona: the cantankerous conservative who reveled in political confrontation and the Southern gentleman who would do anything to lend a hand.

Vice President Dick Cheney attended Helms' funeral along with a cadre of sitting senators, including some Democrats who spent years trying to keep Helms in check.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke from the pulpit, recalling how Helms enjoyed frustrating rival lawmakers by using congressional rules at times to wreak havoc when he was displeased. Helms, who died on the Fourth of July, had plastered harsh political cartoons lambasting his career around his office and smiled when visitors wondered why.

"Jesse Helms always stood his ground," McConnell told the packed 800-seat sanctuary at Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh. "He put duty above all else -- duty to God, to country, to family ... the simple duty of treating other people well."

Though that duty of kindness was often obscured by Helms' caustic convictions -- he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for one -- friends and family frequently spoke of that altruism.

Jimmy Broughton, Helms' former chief of staff, remembered Helms once interrupted an urgent staff meeting to inform a fellow senator of an underinflated tire -- and also how he never yielded in fighting for constituents' rights. When a Raleigh resident needed help with her Social Security benefits, Broughton recalled her neighbor, a Democrat, couldn't do anything but urged her to call Helms.

The neighbor told her, "I despise the SOB, but I think it's high time you call Jesse Helms," Broughton said, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Joe Biden of Delaware also attended Helms' funeral, along with Gov. Mike Easley and several state political figures. Cindy McCain, wife of presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain, joined in paying respects to the five-term senator, who served from 1973 until 2003.

Helms' casket was draped with a U.S. flag as the front of the sanctuary was decorated with flowers sent by U.S. senators and a painting of Helms at work. Choir members, in red silk robes, stood behind friends and family.

Helms rose to political power after a career in newspapers, radio and television commentary. He first took to politics in the 1950 campaign to elect segregationist candidate Willis Smith to the Senate.

He never shied away from the issue of race, using it as a wedge up until his final campaign. In a 1990 race against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who is black, Helms aired a commercial showing a white fist crumpling up a job application, as a narrator said, "You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"

But Helms wasn't just about one issue.

He often forced roll-call votes in the Senate that required Democrats to take politically difficult votes on such cultural issues as federal funding for art he deemed pornographic, school busing and flag-burning. His unwavering opinions won him respect from voters wary of other politicians who weren't nearly as direct.

Raleigh resident Wallace Holloway, 68, was among mourners waiting early for the church to open. He said Helms will be greatly missed as a man of strong convictions.

"We need more men like Jesse Helms," Holloway said. "He's an icon -- a Southern gentlemen. He'll be remembered for integrity and truth."

As he aged, Helms was slowed by illnesses, including a bone disorder, prostate cancer and heart problems. He also used a motorized scooter to navigate the Capitol as his career neared an end. In April 2006, his family said he had been moved into a convalescent center after being diagnosed with vascular dementia, in which repeated minor strokes damage the brain

Helms was born in Monroe on Oct. 18, 1921. He attended Wingate College and Wake Forest College, but never graduated and went on to serve in the Navy during World War II.

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