WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jesse Helms, a die-hard anti-communist firebrand who championed a wide range of conservative causes in his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, died early on Friday, aged 86, his foundation said.
A blunt-talking product of the Old South, the lawmaker from North Carolina was known as "Senator No" for opposing just about anything that obstructed his conservative view of the world. He retired in 2003 after five terms in the Senate.
Helms died at 1:15 a.m. in Raleigh, North Carolina, according to a notice on the Web site of the Jesse Helms Center, a foundation established to promote his legacy.
"Laura and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our good friend and a great American," President George W. Bush said in a statement. "Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called 'the Miracle of America.'"
The one-time radio commentator turned congressional power broker pursued an ideological agenda that was anti-communist, anti-liberal, anti-gay and anti-affirmative action. He also held a deep distrust of international organizations and many foreign governments.
"He was one of the giants of the '80s and '90s in the United States Senate," former Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi told Fox News.
For years, Helms played a key role in U.S. foreign policy as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, embracing a strong U.S. national defense and what he regarded as a moral foreign policy.
This made the Republican curmudgeon a hero to fellow American conservatives, yet a villain at home and abroad to those who saw him as a symbol of U.S. isolationism and a foe of social progress. His name became synonymous with social conservatism.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, said the defeat of Soviet communism and the rise of the late President Ronald Reagan would not have happened without Helms' "intrepid leadership at decisive times."
Helms served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee while Republicans controlled the Senate from 1995 to 2001. But no matter which party had control, Helms was a force in Congress, even when failing health forced him to travel the halls on a motorized scooter.
"Under his leadership, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a powerful force for freedom," Bush said. "And today, from Central America to Central Europe and beyond, people remember: in the dark days when the forces of tyranny seemed on the rise, Jesse Helms took their side."
In his 2005 memoir "Here's Where I Stand," Helms explained he had embraced the "Doctor No" nickname.
"It wasn't meant as a compliment, but I certainly took it as one. There was plenty to stand up and say 'No!' to during my first term in the U.S. Senate," he wrote.
His battles with the United Nations led to a 1999 deal to repay U.S. debts to the world body in return for U.N. reforms and he co-sponsored legislation that invoked economic sanctions to punish foreign businesses that invested in Cuba.
In March 2002, Helms made headlines and won praise from some former critics when he expressed regret for being a latecomer to the global fight against AIDS and vowed to press for more money to combat the disease in his final tour of Capitol Hill.
Reporting by Jim Wolf and Tom Ferraro; editing by Eric Beech and Todd Eastham