I grew up in North Carolina not far from the hometown of the late Senator Jesse Helms, and I’ve long wondered if I might be distantly related to him. My mother was from Union County, where Helms was from, and I have many cousins there whose last name is Helms. I know that I have many of the small-town values that Helms revered – including the belief that it’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead.
Still, Jesse was never reticent about speaking his mind. So maybe it’s a family trait that I feel compelled to speak my mind about him.
I never understood the tenacious grip that Helms had on North Carolina politics during his 30 years in the Senate. He represented a brand of angry, reactionary Old South conservatism that isn’t usually associated with this state. And yet, while North Carolina chose progressives and moderates, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans for its other elected offices, there was always Jesse, the ultimate unyielding ultra-conservative demagogue, towering over everyone.
Helms affected the lives of North Carolinians before he became a Senator. I have an old friend named Mike who remembers the anguish Jesse caused his family in 1968 when Helms was editorial director of WRAL-TV in Raleigh.
Mike’s father, a Methodist minister, was moving the family from Raleigh to Charlotte. But he was having trouble selling their house. One day he got a call from an African American man who said the real estate broker wouldn’t show him the house. My friend’s father made his own deal to sell to this man.
When word got out that a black family was moving into this previously all-white neighborhood, Helms was apoplectic. He went on the air with a scathing editorial denouncing the minister and accusing him of “blockbusting.”
Jesse even broadcast the address of their home. Cars with license plates from Deep South states showed up at all hours of the day and night and parked on their street. Agents from the State Bureau of Investigation moved in with my friend’s family to protect them until they moved to Charlotte.
Still, there were times when Helms’s unyielding resentment of those who annoyed him was funny, almost charming, in a weird way. When I was working at the Raleigh News and Observer (which Jesse detested) I was told to get in touch with Helms to get a comment about a breaking news story.
The N&O had the phone number of an apartment Helms rented in suburban Washington, D.C. I dialed the number.
“Hello,” I said, “am I speaking with Mr. Helms?”
“Ah, who's calling?” Jesse asked.
“My name's Willie Drye, Mr. Helms, and I'm a reporter for the News and Observer. I was wondering if ...”
“Mr. Helms? Mr. Helms?”
I dialed the number again. This time it rang unanswered, and I let it ring. Finally, after a couple of minutes, someone – I assume it was Jesse – picked up the phone and dropped it back onto the hook.
“Have we done something lately to piss off Jesse Helms?” I asked the editor who'd told me to call the senator.
“What happened?” he asked.
“He hung up on me twice,” I said.
“Oh, don't worry about that. He always hangs up on us. Just say he couldn't be reached for comment.”
For all of Jesse’s peevishness and outright nastiness, however, he did have a well-deserved reputation for helping his constituents. Sometimes he’d help even if he knew they’d never vote for him. He did a huge favor for a friend in Chapel Hill when my friend’s wife was trapped in Poland when martial law was declared there in December 1981.
My friend said he'd tried to contact North Carolina's congressional delegation for help, but they'd all ignored him. I suggested that he contact Helms's office. He did, but after his earlier experiences, he wasn't expecting any response.
But Helms's office gave my friend access to the U.S. diplomatic pouch to Poland, which allowed him to send his wife the documents she needed to leave.
There are lots of people in North Carolina and elsewhere who loved Jesse Helms and the way he forced his will on state and national politics. But I can't say that I was grief-stricken when I heard a few days ago that Jesse died.
Still, one of the things I learned growing up in that small town near Helms's home is that it's just not a good thing to rejoice at anyone's death. One of my favorite works by the 17th-century poet John Donne is “For Whom the Bells Toll”, his meditation on the universality and ultimate tragedy of death.
Donne says that we are all diminished a little when anyone dies, and every death is a reminder that our own time will come sooner or later. And I guess that means that we’re all diminished a little by the passing of Jesse Helms.
So goodbye, Jesse, and may God have mercy on your soul. No doubt you did good things in this life that I'm unaware of. But I’d love listen in on the conversation when you stand at the Pearly Gates and try to explain some of your other actions to Saint Peter. That would be an interesting conversation.