Jesse Helms, Jr. was an American politician and leader of the conservative movement. He was elected five times as a Republican to the United States Senate from North Carolina. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001 he had a major voice in foreign policy. Helms helped organize and fund the conservative resurgence in the 1970s, focusing on Ronald Reagan‘s quest for the White House as well as helping many local and regional candidates.
Helms was born in 1921 in Monroe, North Carolina, where his father served as chief of both fire and police departments. Helms briefly attended Wingate Junior College before leaving for Wake Forest College. He left Wake Forest to begin a career as a journalist, beginning with a stint as a sportswriter and news reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer. There he met the former Dorothy Coble, the society editor for the News & Observer and a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They married in 1942. Helms also spent time working at the Raleigh Times, and in radio at stations WCBT and WRAL.
Helms’ first brush with politics was during the 1950 Senate race. Helms became the administrative assistant of Willis Smith, the former law partner of WRAL owner A.J. Fletcher. Upon Smith’s death in 1953, Helms returned to Raleigh as the Executive Director of the North Carolina Bankers Association (NCBA), and ran for his first political office on the Raleigh City Council.
In the 1960s, Helms made the switch from radio to television, serving as Executive Vice President of WRAL-TV and Capitol Broadcasting. He also delivered a daily editorial program, “Viewpoints”, becoming a household name in North Carolina.
By the early 1970s, Helms was encouraged by many supporters to run for the United States Senate. Though initially reluctant, Helms ran and defeated Congressman Nick Galifianakis in the 1972 election. Helms was sworn into office in January 1973 and quickly rose to an influential position in the Senate, where he is credited as being one of the key leaders in the rise of the modern conservative movement. Helms was a master of the Senate rules and procedures, routinely reading everything he could on issues brought up for a vote. He felt it was his duty and obligation to fully understand the facts and implications of all legislation affecting his constituents.
The Senator was instrumental in establishing the bipartisan Senate Steering Committee, a committee designed to formally organize conservative public policy positions. Helms also took a great interest in foreign affairs, rising to the role of Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1995. Later, after working closely with Senator Joe Biden to reform the United Nations, Helms became the first legislator in history to speak before the United Nations Security Council. In 2001, Helms announced he would not run for a sixth term and, in 2003, retired to Raleigh with his wife, three children and seven grandchildren. Helms lived happily in retirement with his family until his death on July 4, 2008.
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