When he finishes his Senate term in 2002, he will return home to a state where technology is big business, the politics are mostly Republican and the population is increasingly Hispanic.
In those 28 years in between, North Carolina has changed considerably, even as Helms has remained stubbornly the same. That, his supporters say, is the key to his voter appeal. Helms never allowed himself to fall into the political slipstream, never budged from his rock-solid conservatism.
But if the strength of Helms' convictions is endearing to some, it made him a villain to others. Liberals cringe whenever they hear him denounce affirmative action, abortion rights or any other cause that contravened his world view. His opponents decry his campaign tactics as fear-mongering. Civil rights groups call him sexist, racist and homophobic. Helms shrugged it all off -- he is as impervious to criticism as he is to the changing political climate.
For a statesman of such visibility and experience, Helms authored relatively few pieces of legislation. As the chair of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms is better known for blocking opponents' bills and sabotaging the nominations of people with whom he disagreed. "Senator No," as he came to be known, was feared by those who were subjected to his often withering interrogations on the Senate floor.
Yet in person, Helms is never less than cordial, with an avuncular persona that charms his fans and confuses his critics. He has always been available to his constituents, and his office is incredibly responsive to their needs.
This disjunction, this inability to reconcile the kindly old man with the Scourge of the Senate, leads inexorably to a single question: Who is the real Jesse?
That is the question that presents itself as North Carolina's most revered and reviled political figure shuffles out of the limelight. That is the question that has confounded countless reporters. That is the question that is perhaps too disturbing to consider, because its answer might reveal things about ourselves that we'd rather not know.
To be certain, Helms' election paralleled the ascendency of the Republican Party in North Carolina. As American politics emerged from the crucible of the 1960s, Helms followed many other disillusioned Democrats to the other side of the aisle. And as the religious right began to slowly co-opt the party of Lincoln in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Helms was its poster child.
Yet in recent years, Helms has seemed more out of sync than ever. His 1990 campaign against Harvey Gantt was an ugly affair remembered most for its infamous ad in which a pair of white hands crumpled an application letter while a voiceover intoned "You were the best qualified for that job, but they had to give it to a minority."