Larger than life
'Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond'
April 2, 1999
(CNN) -- There's Strom Thurmond the politician and there's Strom Thurmond the searing individualist. Like the fruit in a blueberry and peach cobbler, the two combine inseparably to make him America's most enduring twentieth century political figure. Ordinary citizens love him. He speaks the common man's language. He is the rare politician who seems to relate to and care about everyday people. Strom is the master of retail politics.
Striding rapidly, Strom Thurmond headed toward a cluster of legislators at the edge of the racecourse for the Carolina Cup. The spring steeplechase serves as a huge outdoor cocktail party for Camden's Yankee "horsy set" and South Carolina's social elite. It was the year Thurmond turned seventy, fathered his first son, and ran for his fourth term in the Senate. A seasoned political reporter, standing beside the legislators and holding a cup of boozy good cheer, spotted the senator heading their way.
Directly in Thurmond's path sat a large pile of fresh horse manure. As he neared the clump of still-moist droppings, he established eye contact with the group. Watching closely, the reporter suppressed the flicker of a wicked smile. At the last moment, without looking down or breaking his stride, Thurmond deftly sidestepped, greeted the men, and vigorously shook their hands.
For reporter Kent Krell, a native of England with an appreciative eye for his adopted state's eccentricities, the scene remained vivid a quarter century later as an image of Strom Thurmond's finely calibrated political antennae and his innate capacity to both sniff danger and move adroitly to avoid it.
With his dyed orange-red hair transplants and shambling gait, Thurmond in his mid-nineties daily sets records as the United States Senate's oldest and longest-serving member. He may seem to the knowledgeable observer in New York or Washington as an old seg and irrelevant relic. But in his native South Carolina, whose voters returned him to the Senate in 1996 for an eighth six-year term that will end just after his 100th birthday, ol' Strom retains a larger-than-life mystique.
There's Strom the politician and there's Strom the searing individualist. Like the fruit in a blueberry and peach cobbler, the two combine inseparably to make him America's most enduring twentieth century political figure. The tales of "colored offspring," his penchant for young wives, and a legend for lechery provide a larger-than-life overlay of ribald rascality. But ordinary citizens love him. He speaks the common man's language. He is the rare politician who seems to relate to and care about everyday people. Strom is the master of retail politics.
"He took small county politics and applied it on a statewide basis," explained Butler Derrick, a Democrat who served twenty years in Congress with Thurmond and grew up in his hometown of Edgefield. "He's always ready to help someone. Politics is a matter of addition, not subtraction, and he's the one who wrote the rule on that."
Thurmond's political legacy is found not in the annals of legislative achievement, but in redefining America's political culture. As the segregationist Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948, he won four Deep South states and shook the foundations of the Democratic "solid South." This psychological break opened the path for two-party development in the region. Elected to the Senate in 1954 in an unprecedented write-in campaign, he switched parties ten years later to campaign across the South for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. This symbolic act, after Goldwater voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, for the first time helped attract large numbers of the most racially conscious white Southerners into the GOP. It helped lay the foundation for a race-flavored "Southern strategy" that altered the character of the party of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1968 Thurmond became kingmaker for Richard Nixon, first holding the South for him against Ronald Reagan to win the nomination for president at the Republican national convention, and then in thwarting Alabama Gov. George Wallace's third-party drive. Thurmond already had led the charge that blocked Justice Abe Fortas from becoming Chief Justice after Earl Warren. As Thurmond foresaw, President Nixon's appointments to the Supreme Court would begin its movement to the right.
Once when a speechwriter used the word "afraid," Strom handed the text back to him with the comment, "I've never been afraid of anything." His record in both military and political combat proves it.
In electoral politics, Thurmond is the proven master. As a child he learned how to shake hands from the legendary race-baiter Pitchfork Ben Tillman. He's done it so long and so often in South Carolina that he is able to detect a glint of recognition in someone's eyes and greet them with "So good to see you again." The ordinary citizen thinks, "He remembered me."
His political mastery, however, is based not on show, but substance. The four corners of its foundation are: (1) political boldness, which reflects both courage and an unsurpassed instinct for timing; (2) a refusal to keep an enemy, which dissipates opposition; (3) a willingness to take a firm stand on issues, which generates respect; and (4) a record of legendary constituent service, which creates goodwill.
Thurmond's effrontery at pork barrel politics is almost breathtaking. After voting against almost all federal legislation aimed at improving health care, education, housing, and other domestic spending programs not involving the military, Thurmond sought every federal dollar he could get for South Carolina, with a press release seeking credit for every grant made to the state.
For Thurmond, politics represents total commitment that's part of his being. Ordinary citizens trust him. A textile worker in overalls once explained he would vote for Thurmond "because he stands up for what he believes in - even when he's wrong."
Thurmond's political foundation is reinforced by a quiet and simple religious faith, values rooted in family pride and loyalty, and a fierce determination to win that is reflected in a lifelong passion for physical fitness. On his sixty-fifth birthday, he performed before a group of reporters in his Senate office, doing a hundred push-ups.
Until Gov. George Wallace of Alabama came along, no one symbolized resistance to civil rights for African-Americans more than Thurmond. In the Senate the former Dixiecrat set a filibuster record against the 1957 Civil Rights Act. That record still stands. But when the tide of changing constitutional law forced the American South to abandon the state-enforced system of rigid racial segregation that served as the model for South Africa, Southerners changed their behavior. Changes in attitude followed. Strom Thurmond moved with the tide.
He abandoned his ship of "states rights" opposition to civil rights progress and swam into the mainstream. He voted in 1982 to extend the Voting Rights Act he had bitterly opposed. He became a champion of traditionally black colleges. He supported legislation to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a national holiday. He reached out, politically and personally, to blacks in South Carolina, recognizing that they too had become constituents who should get service from his office. And he recognized most of all that blacks now voted.
Thurmond treats the public's money like it's his own. When he became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thurmond personally approved every expenditure of funds - down to buying a box of pencils.
Dennis Shedd, his trusted staff director who became a federal trial judge, never forgot his first presentation as a young staffer in Thurmond's Senate office. Shedd had carefully read and absorbed an in-depth, four-page article in a Sunday issue of the Washington Post that analyzed complex issues about nuclear energy. When he came in Monday morning, Thurmond asked him to read the article, written by a noted scientist, and brief him. Shedd saw it as an opportunity to display his brilliance.
A few minutes later he told Thurmond he was ready, and the senator said to go ahead. After less than thirty seconds, Thurmond stopped him and asked, "Is he for it or against it?"
Shedd explains, "He just wanted to know if the man was for nuclear energy or against it. I learned a very important lesson."
When he became top aide, Shedd told other staffers that in briefing the senator they needed to be prepared to do it in fifteen seconds. "I told them, 'If you can't tell him in fifteen seconds, you don't understand it well enough yet. And if he wants to hear more, or ask questions, be prepared to talk for up to an hour.'"
Miss Hortense Woodson, for decades the keeper of the flame of local history in Strom's hometown of Edgefield, knew him since he was a little boy coming into church with his father and his mother. "He hasn't changed," she once told a writer for The New York Times Magazine. "Everything he's done has been done to the full. There's no halfway doings about Strom."
So, what's Thurmond's weakness, his character flaw? The biblical book of Ecclesiastes may have had Strom in mind with its observation: "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." He often appears "out of it" because, as one former aide explained, he's too vain to wear a hearing aid. Thurmond tells witnesses who sit too far from the microphone at Senate committee hearings, "Talk into the machine. Talk into the machine."
At Clemson University, Strom's alma mater, the floor of an entire building is dedicated to the Strom Thurmond collection. A former staffer in his Senate office said that "everything - even napkins from a reception" are collected and sent to Clemson.
Full-time archivists organize the material - speeches, correspondence, newspaper and magazine articles, and endless photographs. During months of cataloging photographs, an archivist said that eleven cubic feet of them were discarded.
In South Carolina his name seems everywhere - buildings, highways, a lake. And more.
The marker over the grave of his universally admired first wife, Jean Crouch Thurmond, includes two long lines, engraved in granite, that identify her as:
THE WIFE OF A LAWYER-GOVERNOR-
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