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Former US Senator Jesse Helms Dies At 86

By Kent Klein
04 July 2008

Former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative icon and opponent of U.S. foreign aid, died Friday at the age of 86. A spokesman says the former lawmaker died of natural causes in his home state of North Carolina. VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington.

"They've got to put up with that right-wing extremist from North Carolina until well after the 21st century, the lord willing," said Helms.

During his 30 years on Capitol Hill, the North Carolina Republican became a powerful voice for a conservative movement that was growing both in the U.S. Congress and across the country. He used his position to speak out against issues like gay rights, federal funding for the arts and U.S. foreign aid.

Jesse Helms was born in 1921, in a small town in North Carolina. He was a journalist, commentator, broadcast executive and banker before winning his first Senate race in 1972. The lawmaker soon became known nationwide as a forceful conservative spokesman, a reputation he kept for the rest of his life. He supported the armed forces, prayer in public schools and other old-fashioned values. He fiercely opposed legal abortion, homosexuality and government-funded art.

The senator also remained a rigid anti-communist long after the end of the Cold War. Cuba was one of his favorite targets. In 1996 he co-authored the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened the U.S. economic blockade around the island. The measure touched off a storm of protest from Cuba's trading partners, like Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Helms was typically unapologetic.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again. Those people [who] are so eager to deal with the bloody Fidel Castro remind me of a guy named Neville Chamberlain," said Helms. "Remember that name? He was the British prime minister who went over to Munich in the 1930's and sat down with Adolf Hitler."

Despite his power in Washington, Helms had to fight some hard political battles in his home state. He narrowly won re-election in 1984, and six years later faced a tough race against an African-American opponent, Harvey Gantt. That year, the Helms campaign aired a television commercial that showed a pair of white hands crumpling a job rejection letter.

"You needed that job," he said. "And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is."

Critics charged that the commerical was thinly veiled racism, but Helms won the election. He beat Gantt again six years later to win his fifth term. After 30 years in the Senate, Helms retired in 2002.

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