And on any number of issues, he pushed his conservative agenda in the Senate. Sending colleagues copies of the controversial gay-oriented artwork of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, he asked in 1989 if the government should be funding it -- and threatened cuts in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Introducing a constitutional amendment to ban abortions, he likened the procedure to the Holocaust.
His obstinacy in foreign policy, where pragmatism often guides debate, was remarkable. Few administrations escaped his wrath. He condemned President Nixon's historic 1972 trip to Beijing as "appeasing Red China." He castigated President Carter, saying he "gave away the Panama Canal." And after the newly elected President Clinton proposed that gays be allowed to serve openly in the military, Helms said that Clinton "better have a bodyguard" if he visited North Carolina.
Colored by a passion against communism, Helms never relinquished his animus toward Cuba's Fidel Castro (he was coauthor of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which penalized companies doing business with Cuba), and he backed the Contra rebels in Nicaragua seeking to overthrow the Marxist government of Daniel Ortega. He backed right-wing authoritarians who ran death squads in El Salvador, and the military in Guatemala.
To the annoyance of both Democratic and Republican presidents, he used the Senate's confirmation power to block nominees he didn't like. Robert A. Pastor, a former Carter administration Latin American expert, never became ambassador to Panama. William F. Weld, before he was elected governor of Massachusetts, never became Reagan's ambassador to Mexico -- despite the intervention of such stalwart Republicans as Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. James C. Hormel, a philanthropist and gay activist from San Francisco, did become ambassador to Luxembourg, but only after Helms' objections forced Clinton to wait until after Congress left town, dooming Hormel to a shortened tenure.
Because of Helms, several major treaties never became law: The Kyoto Protocol against global warming, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the proposed land mine treaty -- all were stopped at his insistence.
Helms' demagoguery was a lightning rod for liberals. He called homosexuals "weak, morally sick wretches." During debate on a 1988 AIDS bill sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Helms said, "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."
When Helms announced his retirement in 2001, Kevin Siers, the editorial cartoonist for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, depicted the news with a drawing of a Confederate flag at half-staff.
Just as striking was the comment from Skip Alston, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP: "Jim Crow Sr. is about to retire after spreading his venom of racism and hate for almost 30 years. Jesse Helms' only lasting legacy will be one of prejudice and mean-spiritedness."
Jesse Alexander Helms Jr. was born Oct. 18, 1921, in Monroe, N.C., a small town southeast of Charlotte in the Piedmont region. His father was police chief of Monroe. Helms attended Wingate Junior College and Wake Forest University but did not graduate.
One of his first jobs after leaving college was as a sportswriter for the News & Observer in Raleigh. There he met Dorothy Coble, the paper's society reporter. The couple married in 1942. They had two daughters and adopted a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who had said in a newspaper article that he wished for a family.
During World War II, Helms served stateside in the Navy as a recruiter. After the war, he became city editor of the Raleigh Times and wrote columns reminiscing about his upbringing in the South.
"I shall always remember the shady streets, the quiet Sundays, the cotton wagons, the Fourth of July parades, the New Year's Eve firecrackers. I shall never forget the stream of school kids marching uptown to place flowers on the Courthouse Square monument on Confederate Memorial Day," Helms wrote in 1956.
He eventually went into radio and television, which would be a boon to his political career.
From the beginning, Helms was schooled in the political device of using race to propel white conservatives to the polls. As news director for WRAL radio, Helms supported Willis Smith in his 1950 Senate campaign against Frank Porter Graham, the former president of the University of North Carolina. The campaign theme was that Graham favored interracial marriages. "White people, wake up before it is too late," said one ad. "Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favors mingling of the races."
The campaign's further contribution to political notoriety was a handbill that showed Graham's wife dancing with a black man.
When Smith won, Helms went to Washington as his administrative assistant.
Upon Smith's death in 1953, Helms returned home to work for the North Carolina Bankers Assn., turning the group's monthly magazine into a platform for his political views. He was persuaded to run for a City Council seat in Raleigh.