Vermont Royster, the retired Wall Street Journal editor, found Jesse Helms, after six years in the Senate, a "phenomenon in search of an explanation." Helms, he wrote, had first appeared in Washington in 1973 as a "sort of oddity . . . a congenital naysayer standing somewhere to the right of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan." After a while, though, and especially after Helms rolled over his opposition again in 1978, Royster admitted that "he must be taken seriously" as a national political figure.
Helms's senatorial colleagues had reached the same conclusion soon after the tall, stoop-shouldered figure with the graciously disarming Old South manner had appeared in their midst. Helms first came to the fore as a skilled parliamentarian. He was befriended by the late Senator James Allen (D-Ala.), a visceral conservative and a master of parliamentary procedure. Allen had more than once so confused his senatorial opponents with the intricacies of his maneuvers that they found themselves voting for legislation they condemned or against new laws they favored. Helms proved an adept student. In October 1973 he won the Golden Rule Award as the first GOP senator to preside over the Senate chamber for more than one hundred hours. He was present for 96 percent of the Senate votes in 1973, and he nearly succeeded during his freshman year in getting a bill approved abolishing forced busing to achieve school integration. Helms modestly explained that he was "just a country boy trying to live up to what I promised I would do."
What that was, Helms's colleagues soon learned, was to keep things constantly stirred up. The new North Carolina senator spoke in dulcet tones when seeking favors or greeting friends. One of his favorite expressions, especially among women and children, was "Bless yo' heart." But Helms could strike furiously in rhetorical combat. He was a master of the sharp retort. His shrewd way of sensing the vulnerabilities of an opponent, and with a phrase or an offhand comment wounding him to the quick, aroused anger among many and in the liberal camp, blind fury.
Helms was also full of endless energy. He seemed to savor standing alone at the storm center of hopelessly unpopular causes. He provoked his own GOP associates by forcing them to vote on delicate political issues that most of them would have preferred avoiding.
From the outset Helms planned strategies for enacting his key social programs. They included an anti-abortion amendment, removal of the federal