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Ex-Sen. Jesse Helms, Conservative Icon, Dies At 86

NPR's Political Editor Ken Rudin talks with Ari Shapiro on 'Morning Edition'

Former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who represented North Carolina in Congress for 30 consecutive years, died Friday. He was 86.

Helms died in Raleigh, N.C., at about 1:15 a.m., according to the Web site of The Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C. His former chief of staff, Jimmy Broughton, said Helms died of natural causes.


An icon of the conservative movement, Helms was elected to five terms in the Senate and served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Helms was a blunt-talking product of the Old South — known as "Senator No" for opposing just about anything that clashed with his conservative views.

Born in Monroe, N.C., on Oct. 18, 1921, Helms served in the U.S. Navy from 1942-1945. Later, he became the city editor of the Raleigh Times and worked in television and radio.

Helms became so popular for his television commentaries against civil rights and communism in the 1960s that after he quit the Democratic Party and became a Republican, voters sent him to the Senate in 1972 and re-elected him in 1978, 1984, 1990 and 1996.

In Washington, Helms was an early champion of former President Ronald Reagan, and was known for his rhetoric and parliamentary tactics opposing abortion, gay rights, welfare programs, arms control treaties, liberal artists and foreign aid.


Race was a defining issue during his career. He fought naming a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And he defeated Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte, in 1990 after running advertisements depicting a white man being rejected for a job that went to a less-qualified black applicant.

Helms never apologized for his defiant opposition to racial integration — even after the Republican Party he helped to build in the South had accepted it.

In his later years, Helms was plagued by a number of illnesses, including a bone disorder, prostate cancer and heart problems. He used a motorized scooter to get around the Capitol near the end of his career and decided not to run again in 2002. He retired in 2003.

He penned a memoir, Here's Where I Stand, that was published in 2005.

From NPR and wire reports

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