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Obituary: Jesse Helms

During his long career in US politics, Jesse Helms was dubbed "Senator No" by his critics for his staunch and forthright opposition to any number of initiatives and treaties.

Jesse Helms
Jesse Helms divided opinion at home and abroad

A hard-right conservative, he was a polarising figure, battling liberals, communists and pretty much anyone who disagreed with him.

He was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001, a role that set him on a frequent collision course with the Clinton administration.

Its multilateral approach to foreign relations did not fit in with his view of how America should operate.

He was behind the US stopping payment to the United Nations, a body he believed had over-reached itself.

He also blocked ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty in 1999 and opposed the use of US troops in Bosnia.

"I will not support sending American soldiers to fight and to die for the sake of an agreement not yet reached which may offer no more than the promise of a brief pause while all sides prepare for the next round of Balkan wars," he said.

He also spoke out against Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba, sponsoring the Helms-Burton bill that attempted to levy sanctions on non-US companies doing business with the island.

Racism accusations

On domestic issues, he provoked the ire of liberals around the country with his crusade against abortion, homosexuality and affirmative action - programmes to overcome the effects of past discrimination by allocating resources to members of specific minority groups.

I'm so old-fashioned I believe in horse whipping
Jesse Helms
In a debate in 1991 on Aids

His high-profile opposition to the nomination of some black Americans to judicial and ambassadorial positions also led to accusations of racism.

"Just think about it, homosexuals, lesbians - disgusting people - marching in our streets, demanding all sorts of things including the right to marry each other and the right to adopt children. How do you like (that)?" he said.

In some way, Mr Helms and his career harked back to another era - the old Southern segregationist who thought that black people were all right in their place.

But Mr Helms tapped into the fears of many white, middle and working class American people who felt that their country was being taken away from them by the liberals in government in Washington, and was controlled by the media in New York.

He exploited those fears in his election campaigns.

"You needed that job. And you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?" he asked potential voters.

Pop concert

But there was a compassionate side to Senator Helms that few of his critics might believe.

Jesse Helms with Ronald reagan in afile photo from 1983
Mr Helms played a key role in Ronald Reagan's political ascent
He was, it is reported, in tears when Bono, lead singer of rock group U2 and anti-debt campaigner, told him of the suffering that debt caused in the developing world.

He campaigned for the passage of a debt relief bill though Congress.

It was the relationship with Bono that brought Mr Helms to his first-ever pop concert in Washington DC in 2001.

He retired that same year, 29 years after he first went to the Senate to represent North Carolina.

He first came to prominence in the state working as a newspaper editor and television commentator.

He began his political life as a Democrat, albeit a conservative-sounding one.

In later life, he suffered a variety of illnesses, including a bone disorder, prostate cancer and heart problems.

But his declining health did not dim his influence or prominence in Congress whose halls he travelled on a motorised scooter.


SEE ALSO
Ex-Senator Jesse Helms dies at 86
04 Jul 08 |  Americas


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