Sticking Up For / Sticking It To Senator No

Tonight, at 9 p.m., UNC Television will premiere the 90-minute documentary Senator No: Jesse Helms. The film offers an in-depth look at the life and public career of one of North Carolina’s most significant political leaders in the second half of the twentieth century.

Some historians and political analysts go even further in their evaluation of Helms. He was, they claim, the most influential and effective leader of the New Right movement that transformed the national political scene and culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. First as a Raleigh-based television editorialist and then as a United States senator, Helms combined criticism of the civil rights movement and warnings about the threat of communism with sharply stated conservative positions on controversial social issues, such as abortion and gay rights. His political action committee became the largest in the nation, pioneering in the use of direct mail and in hard-hitting, negative television ads that energized his supporters and outraged his opponents.

Few people were neutral about Helms. In 2002, near the end of his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, The Almanac of American Politics asserted that “No American politician is more controversial, beloved in some quarters and hated in others, than Jesse Helms.”

A recent gift to the North Carolina Collection provides a unique, if unscientific way, to gauge the prominence of Helms in state and national politics. In December 2007, Lew Powell of Charlotte donated 2,698 North Carolina-related pin-back buttons, badges, ribbons, cloth swatches, promotional cards, and stickers. Among the most extensive subsets of items in The Lew Powell Memorabilia, as the gift will be known, is the collection of pin-back political campaign buttons.

Over several decades of collecting, Powell gathered hundred of buttons distributed during Tar Heel campaigns for offices ranging from mayor to county commissioner to Council of State to governor to congressman to senator to president. But Helms is the clear winner as the politician who generated the greatest variety of buttons. Helms for Senate. Helms for re-election to Senate. Helms for Vice-President. Helms for President. And lots of anti-Helms buttons, too. In all, there are forty-nine Helms-related buttons in the Powell collection—fascinating, if unusual, documentation of the long and important place of North Carolina’s Senator No in twentieth-century American politics.

Here’s a sampling of Helms-related buttons:

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