Sen. Jesse Helms’ announcement in August of his retirement at the end of his current term was an opportunity for vituperation on the part of the left-wing media that has so detested the North Carolina conservative throughout his entire 30-year political career. “It is alway’s tempting,” moaned the New York Times lead editorial the day after Mr. Helms’ announcement, “when old warriors retire, to lament their passing from the political stage. In the ease of Senator Jesse Helms, that is a temptation to be resisted.” There’s never much danger that any spark of gallantry might flash through the darkness at the Times.

The editorial was followed a few days later by yet another shot at Helms in the paper’s “Week in Review” section—this time by Rick Perlstein, author of a recent study of Harry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, attended by a selection of what the Times considered choice quotations from the senator going hack to his quite unreconstructed comments on Negroes in 1956. Nor was the Washington Post to he outdone by its grim sister in Manhattan. It took the Post a week or so, but eventually, columnist and chief political reporter David Broder unbosomed an op-ed entitled “Jesse Helms, White Racist.”

Of course, this kind of press coverage of Helms is not unusual, and one may guess that the senator, a former journalist himself who has regularly expressed contempt for most of the national media during his career, took it all in stride. Helms’ defenders—including not a few neoconservatives—insisted that Helms was, at least, a political leader who always stood by his principles. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes remarked that, “So far as I know, he’s changed his mind on only one issue in three decades, dropping criticism of Israel and becoming a strong supporter”—which, of course, is why the neocons had anything nice to say about him at all. It is true that Helms seldom if ever altered his positions or thinking on any public issue and true as well that his positions and thinking almost never reflected political expedience but rather his own religions, moral, and political principles.

What was striking about Helms, however, was not so much that he voted consistently in support of conservative positions but that he often chose to lead, or at least carry a torch, on the most difficult and controversial conservative positions—one thinks not only of abortion, arms control, and various nominees of both Republican and Democratic administrations, but also of his strong and simple opposition to the legitimization of homosexuality to the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, to the Genocide Treaty, to various United Nations conventions that violated both national sovereignty and constitutional rights, and to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, a measure supported by then-rising GOP star Newt Gingrich and his cronies.

Despite his courage and integrity on these and other issues, Senator Helms was not without his flaws. On more than one occasion, he displayed a repellent ingratitude to long-time staff members when political convenience dictated. His switch on Israel, whatever its merits or weaknesses, was almost certainly driven more by his hunger for political survival than the religious and moral tinsel in which he chose to wrap it. And, while Helms emphasized issues of immense moral and religious import, such as abortion and homosexuality, he virtually ignored—especially in his latter years—the far more central threat of mass immigration to the nation and its civilization. The immense energy and attention he and his staff always devoted to even the most obscure issues of foreign affairs might have been better spent on resisting the internal cultural and moral disintegration of American society.

What distinguished Helms from virtually every other conservative political leader in Washington in the latter part of the last century (and what probably accounts for both his virtues and his shortcomings) was simply his utter and total indifference to what the press in Washington or in his own state, the political establishment, his colleagues, or his own party thought about him. It was his calculated indifference to—and even contempt for—such quarters that allowed him to say and do precisely what he wanted to say and do, in the certain knowledge that he was accountable only to God and the voters. At the end of his article on Senator Helms in the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes asks, “Will another Helms emerge in the Senate?” Of course not, until another senator is able and willing to insulate himself politically and psychologically as effectively as Jesse Helms did. If there are few willing to bear such insulation, there are even fewer able to sustain it. And most who do will receive little comfort from the Standard and the kind of conservatism it represents.

“Few senators in the modern era,” the New York Times sneered, “have done more to buck the tide of progress and enlightenment than Mr. Helms.” The paper that prints all the news that fits could not have bid farewell to the senator it hates so much with a greater compliment.