Ex-Sen. Jesse Helms, Icon of Right, Dies at 86; Champion of Anti-Communism, Pro-Life

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Byline: Ben Conery and Ralph Z. Hallow, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Former Sen. Jesse Helms, the polarizing North Carolina Republican who was an icon to conservatives and a demon to liberals, died early Friday in Raleigh, N.C. He was 86.

Mr. Helms served five terms in the Senate, from 1973 to 2003. After suffering poor health in recent years, he died of natural causes at a convalescent home. "He was very comfortable," said former chief of staff Jimmy Broughton.

"Jesse Helms was a kind, decent and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called 'the Miracle of America.' So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July," President Bush said in a statement. "He was once asked if he had any ambitions beyond the United States Senate. He replied: 'The only thing I am running for is the Kingdom of Heaven.' Today, Jesse Helms has finished the race."

Mr. Helms and his wife, Dorothy, had two daughters and a son and seven grandchildren. Funeral services are planned for Tuesday in Raleigh.

The North Carolina senator was lionized Friday by conservatives for helping revitalize the Republican Party in the wake of the Watergate scandal and for his efforts against communism, particularly on behalf of Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, writer of "The Gulag Archipelago."

"Helms must be remembered as the man who brought Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to America in 1975 when the great dissident was reviled by the Soviets and shunned by Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford and the rest of the liberal intelligentsia foreign-policy establishment," Ronald Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said.

"Solzhenitsyn had too much sunlight on him for the Evil Empire to exterminate, as they had done with millions of other dissenters, so he was sent into exile," Mr. Shirley said. "But only two men welcomed him to America: Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan."

From his spot as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Helms made anti-communism a career-defining priority.

"He was a pivotal leader in helping win the Cold War," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Steering Committee, which Mr. Helms created in 1974 to promote conservative priorities in the Senate.

Mr. Helms frequently railed against the Soviet Union, China and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He opposed giving China "most-favored nation" trading status because of human rights violations, and a law bearing his name strengthened the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

"It's not inconceivable that some day Helms will be a folk hero in Cuba," Mark Falcoff, a Latin American specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer for a 2001 profile.

"Under his leadership, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a powerful force for freedom," Mr. Bush said. "And today, from Central America to Central Europe and beyond, people remember: In the dark days when the forces of tyranny seemed on the rise, Jesse Helms took their side."

For a 2005 profile in The Washington Times, Mr. Helms linked the two great causes of his Senate career: "We are better off with the defeat of communism. Imagine how much better off we will be when once again unborn children can be safe from the destruction of abortion."

In the 1970s, Mr. Helms played a critical role in rebranding the Republican Party as a coalition of economic conservatives, national-defense hawks and churchgoers concerned about social issues. The shift in the party was made evident with the 1980 election of Mr. Reagan, whose ascension came in no small part thanks to Mr. Helms.

In the 1976 Republican presidential-nomination fight, Mr. Helms and his state political organization helped Mr. Reagan score a key primary win in North Carolina. Though Mr. Reagan eventually lost the nomination to President Ford, his North Carolina victory proved to be a turning point. …