CHARLOTTE — Joe Biden hadn't been in the U.S. Senate long when he walked into a colleague's office and vented about the latest tirade from the Republican senator from North Carolina, this time against a bill to help disabled Americans.
"I went on for probably three minutes talking about how Jesse Helms had no social redeeming value," Biden later recalled. "I thought he was terrible."
The colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, waited for Biden to finish.
"Joe," he said, "what would you say if I told you that Jesse Helms, three years ago sitting at his home in Raleigh ... saw an advertisement in early December for a young man with braces up to his hips ... and steel braces on his arms saying, 'All I want for Christmas is someone to love me, and take me home.' So what would you say, Joe, if I told you Jesse and Dot Helms adopted that young man as their own child?"
"I'd feel like a fool," Biden replied.
Over the years the liberal from Delaware who's now his party's presidential nominee and the conservative from North Carolina would form an unlikely friendship and a bipartisan alliance, all while never abandoning their core beliefs.
"They genuinely cared about each other," said Jimmy Broughton, Helms's former chief of staff. "Their relationship speaks of an era that doesn't seem to exist (now) in the United States Senate."
The relationship is recorded in the archives of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate. Letters and other documents attest to the relationship between the two men who both entered the Senate in 1973, Biden as a 30-year-old lawyer and Helms as a 51-year-old former newscaster with a growing conservative following.
Biden has often mentioned the anecdote about Helms and his adoption of that 9-year-old boy in describing his own development as a public official, a record that forms the foundation of his political career and presidential campaign. He's said the episode offered "the most important lesson I ever learned" over more than three decades in the Senate.
As he recounts it, Mansfield said that while he could question somebody's judgment or policy position, it was "never appropriate to question his motives because you simply don't know his motives."
"From that moment on, I tried to look past the caricatures of my colleagues and try to see the whole person," Biden would recall.
'Civility' remarks spark criticism
Last year Biden drew fire from fellow Democrats when he recalled the days of "civility" in Congress by invoking the names of two Southern segregationists, Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia.
"We got things done," Biden told supporters at a 2019 fundraiser. "We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you're the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy."
Democratic primary opponents pounced.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said it was wrong to invoke two segregationists to tout civility. And Sen. Kamala Harris, now Biden's running mate, said, "To coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way, I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is ... just misinformed and wrong."
Many considered Helms a racist as well.
He fought the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He used racial signals in his campaigns and whistled "Dixie" to the first Black woman senator, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois. In 1990 a notorious ad against Democratic opponent Harvey Gantt featured a pair of white hands tearing up a letter while a narrator said, "You needed that job ... but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota."
Gantt, Charlotte's first Black mayor, said he looks at Biden's friendship with Helms in the context of the time.
"Let's be sensible about it, it was a different day and time," Gantt says. "We know there's no major policy that Biden and Helms voted on that moved Biden away from the progressive policies he supported. Back in the world of the '70s and '80s it was possible you could be friends with somebody and still oppose them on substantial policy issues."
Biden alluded to those differences on the occasion of Helms's 2002 retirement.
"It's no surprise to anyone here (that) Sen. Helms and I have not always seen eye to eye," he told the Senate. "We come from different political points on the spectrum. ... The senator advocated some positions I would fight to my dying day to defeat as he would things I proposed ... For all the intensity with which he takes on issues ... this is a man who has a very, very soft side."
'Senate was a family'
Norm Ornstein was a young political scientist when he interviewed Biden in the Senate shortly after he was first elected. Biden had been sworn in at the Wilmington, Del., hospital where his sons were recovering from a car crash that had killed his wife and daughter.
"What was so striking to Biden was how virtually everybody in the Senate rallied behind him as a person," recalled Ornstein, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "They helped him get through the immense trauma in that first year. Including Helms, including Eastland, including almost everybody there who was an ideological opposite.
"The Senate at that point was a family. Now it's an entirely dysfunctional family."
Helms wasn't the only ideological opposite from the Carolinas with whom Biden shared a friendship.
On a summer day in 2003, the Delaware Democrat strode to the pulpit of Columbia's First Baptist Church. He'd come to eulogize Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, who died at 100.
Thurmond had served in the Senate for nearly a half-century. Before that, in 1948, he'd run for president on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. But Biden said he'd seen Thurmond evolve, voting to extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act and to adopt the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
"Strom knew America was changing, and that there was a lot he didn't understand about that change," Biden told mourners that day. "Much of that change challenged many of his long-held views. But he also saw his beloved South Carolina and the people of South Carolina changing as well, and he knew the time had come to change himself."
The eulogy not only reflected a different era but revealed something about Biden, said Chris Cooper, a political scientist from Western Carolina University.
"The fact is that Joe Biden is at his core an institutionalist," Cooper said. "He's somebody who believes in bringing change through the system rather than challenging the system. And that doesn't play as well today as it did 20 years ago."
Biden foreign policy
Over the years Biden and Helms fought over issues and worked together on others. Their closest collaboration came after 1997. That was the year Biden became ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Helms chaired.
In 1998 they helped push legislation that expanded NATO. Two years later their negotiations paved the way for over a billion dollars in debt relief to developing countries.
Their biggest accomplishment was the 1999 Helms-Biden Act. It authorized the payment of nearly $1 billion in unpaid dues to the United Nations. In the eyes of some, that restored America's credibility with the body, though many conservatives remained opposed. It also reorganized the State Department.
"That wouldn't have happened but for his ability to work with Sen. Biden," Broughton said.
In his 2005 memoir, "Here's Where I Stand," Helms wrote, "Joe and I knew we could trust each other and that we shared the same goals, even when we had differences about how to achieve them."
Cooper said now in both parties it's almost as if "civility" has become a dirty word.
If he's elected in November, Biden would face a much different Congress, Ornstein said.
"Biden tried, based on these early experiences, to transcend political differences and build relationships," he said. "Now he would confront a Senate where (nothing) would be the same."
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!