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Jesse Helms, Jr., was born and raised in the small, quiet town of Monroe, North Carolina. His parents owned a small farm in Monroe, and they both had been raised in the town as well. His father held a dual job of chief of police and fire chief and taught young Jesse about religion and respecting people.
An above average student with interests in music and writing, Jesse remembered many of his teachers, particularly his music teacher, who ultimately inspired him to go to college despite his lack of finances and to take opportunities when they arose. One such opportunity was the Vagabond Scholar, the Monroe local newspaper, for which a teenage Jesse wrote articles that sometimes appeared on the front page. He was the middle child of three, with an older brother and a younger sister, and after graduating from high school, enrolled in Wingate College, working off his tuition only to transfer to Wake Forest University. At Wake Forest, he wrote several news articles for the News and Observer to pay his tuition and accepted a job offer in the sports department before he finished college.
While he worked at the News and Observer, he met a beautiful young reporter named Dorothy, the first woman that the newspaper had hired since 1924. Helms tells the story of wooing her with Coca Cola and peanuts when they first met. His stay at the News and Observer was fairly short, though, and he accepted a job at the smaller Raleigh Times.
In the early 1940s, World War II was beginning to touch the US, and Helms wanted to support his country by enlisting. Because of a slight hearing problem, however, he was rejected until an officer gave him a waiver to join to Navy, and after his tour of duty ended, he returned to the Raleigh Times.
A.J. Fletcher then presented him with another opportunity—to work at WRAL radio. While there, Helms was one of the first broadcasters to use “sound bytes” and include taped material in a live broadcast. While he was still at the radio station, he assisted Willis Smith with his Senate campaign against Frank Porter Graham. In fact, Helms and WRAL were instrumental in convincing Smith to face Graham in a runoff after Graham won the first primary by only 4,000 votes, leading the way to Smith’s victory in the November election.
After Senator Smith won, he asked Helms to join him in Washington as his administrative assistant. At first Helms refused, not wanting to leave his family, but ultimately he accepted and worked as Smith’s administrative assistant until Senator Smith died. While Helms was in Washington, he met Senator Richard Nixon, a Republican senator whose office adjoined Senator Smith’s.
Helms returned to North Carolina after Senator Smith’s death and became the executive assistant of the Bankers’ Association. While there, he wrote editorials for the Bankers magazine, an experience that prepared him for the editorial job for the new WRAL-TV. He meanwhile kept his hand in politics, running for and winning a spot on City Council in 1957.
Part 2: The U.S. Senate
Part 2 of Biographical Conversations begins with Helms discussing some of the issues he discussed on his Viewpoints show at WRAL-TV. Host John Bason asks about his views on desegregation, in particular, to which Helms responds that he feels desegregation should have been encouraged and modeled rather than enacted by law. While he disagreed with the terms of our involvement in the Vietnam War, he stood by the soldiers who fought and expresses repulsion against many of the protests.
Helms was a registered Democrat until he took his daughter to register to vote and noticed her registering Republican. He switched to the Republican Party, and he later ran for Senate on a Republican platform. Because North Carolina had never elected a Republican senator, Helms was certain he would lose the Senate race; in fact, A.J. Fletcher agreed to give him his job back after he took a leave of absence to campaign. However, he won the race—the same year that President Nixon won reelection.
Throughout his Senate career, Helms relied on his faith in God, and cites many instances where it helped him get through tough situations. Shortly after Helms won the 1972 election, a group of conservative students formed the National Congressional Club to assist with Helms’ campaign debt, and Helms states that the Club has been instrumental in financing many Republican campaigns, including Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign.
Senator Helms was the first senator to support Ronald Reagan, and although Reagan lost the 1976 primary, he emerged as quite a strong candidate in 1980. Some people begged Helms to join Reagan as his vice president, but Helms says that he was interested only in the Senate.
Helms cites the 1984 reelection campaign against Governor Jim Hunt as the toughest campaign he ran—particularly because he thought Governor Hunt would beat him. It was one of the most expensive senatorial campaigns to date, and it became quite a bitter campaign in many people’s recollections. Even so, Helms and Hunt remained friends afterwards and worked on many issues together, agreeing to disagree.
Senator Helms speaks about the role that he felt “bloc voting” may have played in the Harvey Gantt campaign and states that he left the Congressional Club in the early 1990s.
As senator, Helms states that he has always tried to stop what he sees as “bad legislation” and used the Senate rules to attempt to block nominations and legislation, even when he was the only one against them. He closes with his musings about some of the Presidents under whom he served, particularly Jimmy Carter and George Bush.
Part 3: Personal and Political Views
John Bason picks up the final episode with a questions about Helms’ opinion of President Bill Clinton. While Senator Helms feels that President Clinton was weak in personal areas, he thinks he is a great speaker and very personable. Senator Helms talks about a comment he made about President Clinton’s visit to North Carolina, Clinton’s impeachment trial and his views on and admiration for Madeline Albright.
Senator Helms admits that he has often disagreed with the State Department’s policies and is openly critical of their membership. He also criticizes foreign aid, which he states does not typically go to the people of a country, but to the leadership. He also expresses his views on the end of Apartheid in South Africa and his support of military governments in South Africa.
Senator Helms was instrumental in the passage of the Cuban embargo and does not see it as unnecessarily interfering in another country’s business practices. While he feels that countries that transition from communism to capitalism should do so, for the most part, with little interference, he feels that the U.S. should help bring stability during the transition.
Although he has included minorities in his office and has wonderful friendships with many of the black Congressmen, Senator Helms admits to standing against some of the protests in the Civil Rights movement, including the Greensboro sit-in, which he felt interfered with free enterprise.
Senator Helms also shares his views on the restrictions on smoking and tobacco use, the bias of the press and some of the prominent court decisions, including Roe vs. Wade. He also talks about his relationship with and views of Senator John Edwards, who he says has negated many of his votes but whom he admires.
He also discusses his restrictions on supporting funding for the arts and his views on homosexuality and federal discrimination laws, which he states interferes with the way business owners run their businesses.
While he has never actively pursued diverse groups and admits that he often stirs people’s viewpoints, he genuinely likes people and is quite charming and gentile in person. He also states that he has never wavered from his view to support young people.
He closes the series talking about what he will do after he finally retires and says he misses his church in North Carolina and his job at WRAL. He considers himself lucky to have enjoyed all of his jobs and to have had the opportunity to meet Reverend Billy Graham in person, but he says he will not miss Washington.