Let's go ahead and get it out of the way: yes, Helms did some things in his day that to current sensibilities were very callous, even downright crude. The "white hands" television ad that he ran against Harvey Gantt in 1990 was one of the first things that really made me take notice at how dirty the political process had become (that alone was enough to make me vow, even back then, that I'd never run a negative ad aimed against a person if I were to enter politics). And then there was his early career at WRAL in Raleigh, which some people will quickly ascribe some nastier connotations to.
But I still voted for Helms in the 1996 election. And if he were able to run again, I'd vote for him once more. Because disagree with him on some things though I did (and still do), I could not doubt his sincerity in doing what he believed was in the best interest of the people he was sworn to serve... and that's a quality that is hard to find anymore.
Whatever else could be said about the man, it cannot be denied that Jesse Helms was a product of his time, and to that he did hold faithful and true. Whatever your political stripe, he's owed a measure of respect for that. And I think that when the books are finally written on his life, he's going to emerge as one of the most influential - if not also among the most enigmatic - figures of American politics in the past half-century. I will even go so far to say that in the greater scheme of things Helms did far more good than any harm attributed to him... and the full appreciation for that is still to come.
Rest in peace, Senator Helms.