Democratic Sen. Joe Biden had just wrapped up a campaign appearance in Rock Hill Monday when he walked over to introduce himself. When I told him I worked for the Observer, his smile turned serious.
"How's Jesse?" he asked.
You might not think Biden, a moderate-liberal Democrat, would have much in common with the conservative Helms. But over a 30-year Senate career, he counted not only Helms but Sen. Strom Thurmond among his good friends. And not just in the bloviated Congressional sense.
Speaking at York County Democratic headquarters, Biden spoke warmly about his friendship with former Sen. Fritz Hollings and said he "learned an awful lot from that other fellow, 'Stromboli'."
So close were Biden and Thurmond -- a one-time segregationist -- that Thurmond's family asked him to give a eulogy at the senator's 2003 funeral.
In it, Biden said Thurmond, "saw his beloved South Carolina, and the people of South Carolina, changing ... And he knew the time had come to change himself."
Biden's first impression of Helms was not a good one. Shortly after they both were elected in 1972, he listened to Helms deliver a speech with which he disagreed completely. Soon he found himself fulminating about Helms to Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana.
"'What would you say if I told you Dot (Helms) and Jesse adopted a young man?'" Biden recalled Mansfield saying. The senator went on to explain how the Helmses had adopted a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy.
"He said, 'You know Joe, if I can give you a piece of advice.' He said, ‘It's always appropriate to question a man or woman's judgment.' But he said, "You shouldn't question their motives. Everyone who comes here comes here because people in their state found something about them they felt was redeeming. Your job is to find out what that characteristic is.'
"It was profound and it literally changed my whole attitude. If you go back and check my 34 years, you have never ever heard me once question the motive of any senator. Jesse and I were bitter political enemies but personal friends.... It taught me hell of a lesson."
(Helms, by the way, suffers from a form of dementia and lives in an assisted living facility in Raleigh. John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center, said Helms is "doing OK." He turns 86 this month.)
Biden may not be the rock star in the Democratic field, but he was greeted like one Monday by a group of 8th graders from Charlotte's Alexander Graham Middle School.
The group went to see Biden for a class project on the election. They greeted his arrival with shouts and he dived into their group for handshakes and pictures.
"Just remember one very important thing," he told them. "No dating 'til you're 30."