North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, who, two months shy of his 80th birthday, announced this week he would not seek a sixth Senate term in 2002, was a conservative without mitigating adjectives.
Helms never felt the need to call himself a "kinder, gentler" or a "compassionate" conservative. In his 30 years in Washington, Jesse Helms made trouble. He made waves and he made enemies. We can argue about how big a difference he has made. But what cannot be denied is that without Jesse Helms' all-out support in Ronald Reagan's losing 1976 presidential primary fight with President Gerald Ford, the Gipper would never have won the White House in 1980 and 1984.
Honest. As a challenger to President Ford, Ronald Reagan had lost the first five contests of 1976, including the important New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois primaries. The discouraged Reagan campaign was $2 million in debt. Secret talks were held between the leadership of the two camps to explore whether if Reagan were to withdraw and endorse Ford, the president would help pay off the challenger's campaign deficit.
Reagan's prospects in the next primary, North Carolina, were bleak. President Ford's White House chief of staff, a young man named Dick Cheney, would observe after the fact: "We thought we were going to win in North Carolina and sew up the whole thing."
Reagan had one unshakable ally in North Carolina: Jesse Helms and the organization built to support him. At Helms' urging, the Reagan campaign bought TV half-hours and used them to show Reagan making a direct pitch to voters, emphasizing his all-out opposition to the United States turning over the Panama Canal to Panama: "We built it. We paid for it. It's ours, and we're going to keep it."
Helms was an ally but not always an asset. The Helms organization, tapping into the same segregationist passions Helms, himself, had used as a political operative in 1950 in the state's hate-filled U.S. Senate campaign, was ready to distribute literature that was a blatant appeal to racial prejudice. It quoted Ford as "suggesting" Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke, the only black in the U.S. Senate, to be his own vice-presidential running mate. Brooke was quoted as expressing his support for school busing. Reagan ordered an immediate halt. Reagan aide Mike Deaver personally supervised the confiscation and the removal of all the flyers.
Mr. Ford was, himself, unintentionally helpful to the Reagan campaign when in a pre-primary speech to the Future Homemakers of America in Charlotte, the president declared : "I say (with emphasis and conviction) that homemaking is good for America." Of course, "with emphasis and conviction" were there for the speaker's direction, not for his recitation.
Ronald Reagan surprised himself and his own supporters by upsetting President Ford in North Carolina. Overnight, the Reagan campaign got a new life. Reagan went on to whitewash Ford in the Texas primary and fight all the way to the Kansas City convention, where Ford barely won the nomination and Reagan, with a graceful and generous concession, won a new following. After Ford lost a heartbreaker to Jimmy Carter in November, Ronald Reagan became the front-runner for the 1980 nomination.
Robert Kennedy biographer and political journalist Jules Witcover, who covered that 1976 Ford-Reagan battle, wrote of Jesse Helms: "He was in short a man with a mission, convinced that right was right no matter what the nose count might be," because unlike the vast majority of members of Congress who seek the approval of their colleagues, Jesse Helms never gave a damn about what other senators thought of him. He took on divisive and polarizing causes and made others uncomfortable by forcing them to vote up or down. In 1976, Ronald Reagan was just such a cause, and without that 1976 North Carolina victory, the Reagan candidacy that year, and almost surely his national career, would have been over. Jesse Helms made that difference.