On October 18, 1980, Jesse Helms went home to Monroe to celebrate his fifty-ninth birthday among hometown friends. In an informal talk that day he declared: "Consider this question: Is the Lord giving us one more chance to save this country . . . to return to Him and to restore the priorities of decency and morality and honesty?"
As if in answer to the senator's prayer, the United States electorate the following month swept Ronald Reagan to victory over Jimmy Carter and unseated twelve Democratic senators to give the Republicans their first Senate majority in two decades. The sweetest part of that victory--the part in which Helms played a significant role--was the downfall of North Carolina's junior senator, Robert Morgan, at the hands of a Helms-Congressional Club protégé, political science professor John P. East of East Carolina University.
East, whom some Helms critics called "Helms on wheels," arrived in North Carolina from his home in Springfield, Illinois, as a twenty-five-year- old Marine in 1955. Just after leaving the Marines at Camp Lejeune he contracted polio and was confined to a wheelchair. He returned to school at the University of Illinois, where he obtained a law degree. Then he practiced law in Florida for a year before enrolling at the University of Florida, where he got his master's and doctorate in political science. He then came back to Greenville, North Carolina, as a political science instructor in 1964. Almost immediately East became interested in Tar Heel politics. He ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket against Congressman Walter Jones in 1966. He followed that by winning 48 percent of the vote against longtime North Carolina Secretary of State Thad Eure in 1968.
The rise of the New Right in the 1970s encouraged East's interest in politics. Bright and ambitious, he became the North Carolina Republican national committeeman at a crucial moment in 1976. Then he became aligned with the Helms camp and decided to take on Senator Morgan in 1980.
A number of ironies surfaced in the East-Morgan senatorial struggle. Morgan, a small-town lawyer from Lillington, had taken over Senator Sam Ervin's senatorial seat in 1974 on the latter's retirement. He had won the Democratic nomination without opposition, an unusual feat in Tar Heel politics. Earlier, in the 1960s, Morgan had managed the gubernatorial cam-