Confirming what had been widely rumored for at least two days, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., announced Wednesday evening that he would not seek re-election after the end of his fifth Senate term next year.
WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., broadcast a taped announcement by the senator at the top of its evening news at 6 p.m. Helms had taped the address before an invitation-only group at the TV station Wednesday afternoon.
The 79-year-old senator entered the TV station using a cane and was greeted by employees at the station where he his conservative editorials earned him statewide fame in the 1960s and '70s.
"I am by no means announcing my retirement," Helms insisted in his address, implying that his campaign for conservative causes was far from over.
In Washington, President Bush issued a statement on the senator's decision.
"The Senate is losing an institution with the decision of Jesse Helms to retire after three decades of distinguished public service," Bush said. "Senator Helms went to Washington, but never became a part of Washington. He has always remained true to his conservative principles and to the people of North Carolina who elected him five times."
In the last decade, Helms has experienced health problems that affected his heart, legs and balance. The native of Monroe had both knees replaced in 1998. Since then, he has used a motorized scooter to get around Capitol Hill.
Helms first worked in Washington from 1951 to 1953 as an aide to North Carolina Democratic Senator Willis Smith.
Then his television editorials taking aim at communists and the civil-rights movement made him well known to many North Carolinians.
Helms first went to the Senate in the fall of 1972. That same year, Richard Nixon won a second term as president in a landslide. And North Carolina elected its first Republican governor of the 20th Century, Jim Holshouser.
It didn't take long for Helms' conservative views and stubborn ways to endear him to conservatives across the country.
Despite his current health, Helms hadn't lost his appetite for a good fight, even with a sitting GOP president. This summer, Helms blocked the appointment of some Treasury Department officials in an attempt to push President Bush to help out the troubled textile industry.
As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in the early 1980s and later head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Helms had the power to frustrate presidents here and abroad.
During his 29 years in the Senate, Helms pushed conservative social causes, opposing abortion and advocating school prayer. Back home, he was embraced by both Republicans and conservative Democrats in rural, eastern North Carolina.
The Associated Press contributed to this report