Word came on Friday, Independence Day, that former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms had died. We knew Jesse, and as we listened to the news, we knew had Jesse been able, he’d have been waving a flag and whispering the Pledge of Allegiance from his bed in Raleigh…for Jesse revered America and our freedom. He was 86. We knew Jesse before he was elected to the Senate…when he wrote and presented the daily editorials on A.J. Fletcher’s station, WRAL, in Raleigh. Because of the staunch conservatism, the fundamental values, and the real true patriotism they shared, WHKP’s Kermit Edney became a fan of Jesse’s…they later became life-long friends….Jesse mailed Kermit a copy of every editorial. As a young radio reporter 30 years ago, Kermit made it “my job” to read…and to learn from each one…then to later express the same values in OUR own daily editorials, which we did every day for over 12 years…and still do when situations warrant. As an editorial writer, Jesse had a knack for “hitting the nail on the head”, striking a nerve, making his point, and stirring up controversy at the same time. In the 1960’s, when college radicals were making such a fuss…and when North Carolina was debating whether to spend the money to establish a “state zoo” (we have one now in Asheboro), Jesse “editorialized” the state could save a LOT of money and accomplish the same thing…by building a fence around the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill…hang a sign on it, and call IT our “state zoo”! Jesse was elected to the U.S. Senate in the Republican landslide…it probably would be more accurate to say… the “conservative” landslide…of 1972. Democrats gave up their soul that year, gave up the state, the South, and literally lost control of politics for a whole generation that year when they made George McGovern their candidate for president. Republicans won the governorship in this state for the first time in a hundred years…and Jesse Helms went to the U.S. Senate….where he later became chairman of the powerful the Foreign Relations Committee. Jesse understandably became the leader of the Republican Party in North Carolina. But far more important to Jesse than “partisan” politics, were common sense, conservatism, and patriotism. We picked Jesse up at the Asheville Airport one night and drove him to a fund raiser at the Hendersonville Country Club…he “lectured” me all the way there and back to the airport later about being a “conservative”, more than just a Republican. To his credit, Jesse was every bit…more, I believe…as comfortable in a hot, dusty tobacco warehouse in a field in Eastern North Carolina…than in a fancy country club. But he could “communicate” with people in either place…and be “one of them”. And speaking of “great communicators”, commentator Pat Buchanan said, on hearing of Jesse’s death, that Jesse was the “second” most influential conservative in the second half of the 20th century…second only to Ronald Reagan. As much as Jesse admired and loyally served President Reagan, he held onto, throughout his political life, a deep and abiding admiration and respect for President Richard Nixon. Jesse had that typical Southern good sense to see beyond the “mistakes of the day”, like in Watergate…and on to the overall greatness and real value in a person. Jesse fought…indeed he LED the fights…for the most worthwhile causes: against wasting billions at the United Nations; against communism, here and abroad; in total support for our military; in support of conservative federal judges…who “interpret” rather than “make” our laws. Jesse was one of a kind…the kind of REAL…down South, home-spun, common sense, gut-level, patriotic and courageous leader than only comes ONCE in a generation, IF we’re lucky enough to have one that often. North Carolina hadn’t had one like Jesse since U.S. Senator Sam Ervin from Morganton…an old-line, true Southern Democrat…loyal to HIS party…all the way to fighting the fight to impeach President Nixon…but with Carolina roots planted deep in a strong sense of “right and wrong”. The generation BEFORE really misses “Senator Sam”…our last generation will miss Jesse, too. “They” just don’t make true Southern wise-men, leaders, and gentle-men like them anymore.
By WHKP News and Program Director Larry Freeman