Thurmond in 1935
The Vintage Thurmond
Ol' Strom--He changed
with the times--or did he?
By DAVID ZINMAN
For Strom Thurmond, the long sojourn is over.
The fiery pro-segregation speeches are just memories now. So are the election campaigns in the dog days of summer. And the firm handshakes that pressed the flesh of thousands in his home state of South Carolina.
The elder statesman, born 37 years after the Civil War, died on June 26--ending an extraordinary 48-year career that made him the oldest, longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
Thurmond reached the age of 100 last December-a month before retiring. Age finally took its toll, leaving him physically and mentally frail. He spent his last years in a wheelchair commuting to Congress from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After his term ended in January, he went back to South Carolina to live in a private wing in a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield.
No one knows what his thoughts were sitting alone in a sheltered environment far from the hurly-burly of Washington. But if Thurmond looked back on his century of life, he would have seen a colorful mosaic.
He was the circuit judge who could have avoided World War II but took a combat assignment instead. He was the inveterate ladies' man who married a beauty queen young enough to be his daughter..
He was the staunch segregationist who reinvented himself to accommodate to black empowerment. And he was the wily politician whose constituents sent him to Washington for eight straight terms.
Critics say Thurmond's career is distinguished not by what he accomplished in office but by the simple fact that he held office for so long. But there was more to it than that.
"One reason people re-elected him so many times," said David Woodard, who holds the Thurmond Chair of Government at Clemson University, "was because he stands for what they believe.
Most South Carolinians would like to have a clone of Thurmond as their next senator. If you ask him, he would tell you that it was not racial issues but [federal] government intrusion that he opposed. He was more anti-government than he was anti-black."
Others see Thurmond's tenure more starkly. "He will never live down where he was on the moral issue of the day--integration," said Nadine Cohodas, author of "Strom Thurmond & The Politics of Change."
In his acceptance speech as "Dixiecrat" Party standard-bearer in 1948, Thurmond told a cheering throng: "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
On the road in 1948 with his
for the presidency
As a third-party candidate, he won four Southern states--Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina--shattering the "Solid South" that the Democrats had all but taken for granted since the Civil War. He got over a million votes. But he did not stop Harry Truman from upsetting Republican challenger Thomas Dewey.
Thurmond's opposition to integration remained undiminished for another two decades. In 1957, he set a filibuster record of 24 hours and 18 minutes--speaking against a civil rights bill.
However, said Cohodas, a former senior writer for the Congressional Quarterly, the most important thing about Thurmond's career was his political adaptability. "The landscape changed. He had the ability to move from one era to another. A lot of people didn't or couldn't."
In 1982, Thurmond backed his first civil rights bill--the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. He went on to vote for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He became the first Southern senator to hire a black staff member. And though he still opposed other civil rights legislation, he reached out to improve the lot of blacks and black colleges in his state.
Eldred E. "Wink" Prince, history chairman at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., thinks of Thurmond as a transitional politician. "He came to power in a very different segregated South and fought to preserve the Jim Crow system. But after the 1970s, he seemed to have made peace with that. And I feel like he has done some penance."
Did Thurmond start supporting civil rights out of political expediency--because more blacks were voting--or because he thought it was the right thing to do?
"That's a hard call to make," Prince said. "You could ask that of any politician who made the transition. Frankly, I don't know. But I would like to think that he came to it the way a lot of Southerners did who began to accept the inevitability and justice of change."
Thurmond's father, J. William Thurmond, was a lawyer and political lieutenant of the racist governor and senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman. He also was U.S. attorney for South Carolina, and Thurmond said his father probably would have become governor, except "one time he had to kill a man."
In Edgefield, about 20 miles north of Augusta, the elder Thurmond shot to death a political foe who called him a "low, dirty scoundrel." A hometown jury acquitted him after he pleaded self-defense.
Strom (his mother's maiden name) graduated from Clemson in 1923 and became a teacher. But politics was in his blood: Before long, he was superintendent of schools, then state senator, then circuit judge, a job that took him took all corners of the state where he made friends.
When World War II broke out, he joined the Army, although at 39 he was beyond draft age and could also have had an exemption as a judge. He landed in Normandy on D-Day, flying behind Nazi lines in a glider, and served in five campaigns. At his death, he was a retired major general in the Army Reserve.
Thurmond became governor in 1947. Seven years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate as a write-in candidate--the only person to achieve that office without his name on a ballot.
He was nominally a Democrat. But like some other Southern Democrats, he opposed his party's national policies--not only on integration but on welfare programs, liberalism and big government. Finally, in 1964, he switched to the GOP, paving the way for other conservative Southern Democrats.
"No single individual, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, has done more to build the Republican Party in the South," said Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who retired last year.
Over the years, Thurmond's power and influence grew. He helped engineer Richard Nixon's nomination as president in 1968. He went on to leadership roles on three key Senate committees--Judiciary, Armed Services and Veterans Affairs.
Colleagues say he was not a great speaker. Nor did he fashion any watershed legislation or landmark federal programs. His claim to fame was his longevity. Political observers said that, more than anything, helped put his career in a favorable light.
But Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.), who at 80 is finally no longer the Senate's oldest junior senator, said constituent service was Thurmond's great hallmark. "Whether it is the job found for a constituent or helping a family get a relative into a hospital . . . you can count on Strom," said Hollings. "He has made his fame looking out for the people of his state."
Many remember getting a letter of congratulations or condolence from Thurmond. Over the years he signed hundreds of thousands of these "c. and c." letters.
If stories of his letters are legendary, so are tales of his physical prowess. A fitness buff before it was fashionable, Thurmond was noted for his crushing handshake and exercise regimen.
His routine included stretching, weightlifting, stationary bike riding and swimming. He got the most publicity--not all of it good--when he stood on his head in his tennis shorts for a Life magazine photographer with his bride-to-be looking on.
Once, outside a committee meeting, he wrestled an opponent, Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas), to the floor to try to prevent him from going in and making a quorum.
Thurmond also has a well-documented reputation as an irrepressible ladies' man with courtly but sometimes shockingly bold manners. He was known for fondling women in senate elevators. Once, to his dismay, the woman turned out to be a fellow senator.
Jack Bass, his biographer, said that at a Washington reception, Thurmond patted the backsides of Sally Quinn, then a reporter for The Washington Post, and her mother. "Both of us jumped and let out a shriek," Bass quoted Quinn as saying. " . . . As I recall, we were both quite flattered, and thought it terribly funny and wicked of Ol' Strom."
But the most told tale about Thurmond's interest in the opposite sex--a story that is probably apocryphal but heard at every crossroads in the Palmetto State--begins with his secretary interrupting him one day. She comes into his office when he is busy writing at his desk. She tells him a woman is on the phone to talk about the abortion bill. Without looking up, Thurmond says: "Just tell her to pay it. Tell her I'll reimburse her."
Thurmond remained single until he was 44. His standard excuse was that he was too busy to find a wife. That changed in 1947. He raised eyebrows when he married his 21-year-old secretary, Jean Crouch of Elko, S.C. She died of cancer in 1960. They had no children.
Eight years later, when Thurmond was 66, he married Nancy Moore of Aiken. The former Miss South Carolina was 22. The couple, who later separated, had four children--Nancy Moore (who died when a car hit her in 1993), Juliana Gertrude, Paul Reynolds, and James Strom Jr.
Strom Jr. may carry on the family tradition in politics. At Thurmond's request, President Bush nominated him as U.S. attorney for South Carolina. He was only 28 and had less than three years' experience as an assistant prosecutor. But he had no trouble getting the appointment.
It came as Thurmond's health started slipping. During his last term, he fainted in the Senate, suffering from dehydration, and his residence shifted to Walter Reed hospital.
Thurmond kept up his Senate duties, though his staff often had to prompt him to vote and sometimes even told him which way--at times so loudly, because he was hard of hearing, they could be heard in the Senate gallery.
Still, he remained an icon to some colleagues. At his centennial birthday party last December, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss), then senate majority leader, said voters in Mississippi were proud to have supported Thurmond when he ran for the White House. If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldnt have had all those problems over all these years either. The remark lit a political firestorm that forced Lott to step down as leader.
Thurmonds protective staff kept Thurmond secluded from the press. But he stayed in Washington to serve out his final term. It officially ended Jan. 3. Then, he moved to a newly renovated wing of a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield.
It was there that he died on June 26. Many said his funeral was the most spectacular South Carolina had since Senator John C. Calhoun was buried in 1850.
For three days, Thurmonds flag-draped coffin lay in state in the rotunda of the capitol in Columbia. Then, a horse-drawn caisson bearing his casket rolled slowly through rain-drenched streets lined with mourners to the First Baptist Church.
Democrats and Republicans, black and white, eulogized Thurmond, calling him a man who changed with the times, a politiican who was unique. There has never been a political career quite like Strom Thurmonds, said Vice President Dick Cheney. And unless medical science unlocks the secret of his vitality and energy, there probably wont be a career like his ever again.
Alongside Cheney in the front row were Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. They and other notables also delivered euglogies.
To the strains of a bagpipe playing Amazing Grace, a military guard led the casket out of the church. A procession escorted it to the family plot in Edgefield. Thurmond was buried not far from his boyhood home.
No reporter was able to interview the old man as he left office for the last time. But Thurmond might have recalled one of his last hurrahs--his parting words when he stood on the Senate floor and addressed those who had paid tribute to him as he reached his 100th year of life.
"As I close out my public service career," Thurmond said, "I again thank my constituents, my colleagues, my staff, and my family. May God bless each of you. . . . I love you all, and especially your wives."
©2003 by David Zinman. The Zinman caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photos are from the official website of the Strom Thurmond Institute and other internet sources. Their use for this tribute are appreciated.
David Zinman, former Newsday reporter, lives in Conway, South Carolina during the winter and spring. He recently finished a play on Thurmond called Strom in Limbo.
You can comment on this column online. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or David Zinman. To send an email, click here: email@example.com
Home About Us Archives Talkback Shopping Mall