Strom Thurmond

The oldest and longest-serving US Senator in American history
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The Independent Online

James Strom Thurmond, politician: born Edgefield, South Carolina 5 December 1902; Governor, South Carolina 1947-51; US Senator for South Carolina 1955-2003; married 1947 Jean Crouch (died 1960), 1968 Nancy Moore (two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Edgefield 26 June 2003.

Strom Thurmond was one of those politicians to whom statues are erected before they die. Among the several to be found in his native state of South Carolina is one in the main square at Edgefield, the county town where he was born in 1902, a year after the assassination of President William McKinley and the death of Queen Victoria. Beneath the statue are engraved the words of Hamlet about his dead father: "Take him all in all, he is a man. We shall not see his like again." They are no exaggeration. For Strom Thurmond's life was 20th-century American history made flesh.

First the statistics. He was both the longest-serving US Senator in American history, and the oldest to serve. He was the first, and thus far only, Senator to have been elected on a write-in vote (in 1955). He was the last surviving American politician to have won votes from veterans of the American civil war (when he was elected superintendent of the local county-school board in 1924), and the last to have taken part in the D-Day landings. He also set the record for the longest filibuster in Senate history, unlikely ever to be beaten.

He made his reputation as an enforcer of segregation - yet was the first southern Senator to take on black staffers. He was the first leading Southern Democrat to become a Republican, starting the trend that more than any other influenced US presidential politics in the quarter-century before Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992. And amid all this he found time actually to run for President himself in 1948, when, as a breakaway "States' Rights" candidate in the election best remembered for Harry Truman's upset victory over Thomas Dewey, he carried four states and won 39 electoral college votes (more, incidentally, than the official Democratic candidate managed in the elections of either 1972 or 1984).

But, throughout his life, Thurmond's basic loyalties never strayed from Edgefield. There he was born and went to school. There he taught agriculture and coached athletics at a local college before becoming a lawyer in 1930, and a state judge five years later. Politics ran in his blood. Thurmond's father was a South Carolina state legislator and an aide to the turn-of-the-century US Senator Benjamin R. ("Pitchfork Ben") Tillmann, legendary for his laconic dismissal of the then "Negro problem" - "We shot 'em" - and whose campaign appearances provided young Strom's first lessons in politics.

In fact, Thurmond would always insist he was neither a racist nor a segregationist, merely a man who acknowledged political realities and moved with the times. As a judge he showed extraordinary coolness when in 1941 he visited three holed-up murderers who had already shot dead a sheriff and his deputy, to persuade them to surrender. All three later died in South Carolina's electric chair. Much later, and equally bravely, he would insist on punishing a group of white men who had lynched a black.

The personal courage was evident too in his war record. Judge Thurmond became Lieutenant Thurmond in the élite 82nd Airborne division, entering France on D-Day in a troop glider which crash-landed behind enemy lines. Thurmond was injured, but held out with his comrades until they managed to link up with American forces advancing from the Normandy beaches. Later he would serve in the Pacific, earning five battle stars by the end of the Second World War. He only retired from the reserves in 1960, as a major-general.

Long before that however he had emerged as a national politician. In 1946 he was elected Governor of South Carolina, and, though he maintained strict segregation of the races, he none the less increased spending on black, as well as white, schools, and appointed the first black to the state's board of medical examiners. But in 1947 President Truman moved to integrate the armed forces and urged federal laws against lynching and racial discrimination. Outraged by this new threat of direct intervention by Washington in the unsavoury ways of Dixie, Thurmond joined with other southern Governors to form the States' Rights, or "Dixiecrat", party and run for President himself.

That 1948 campaign ended in a defeat which masked a giant victory. The Democratic party was for years furious at his betrayal. But such was Thurmond's fame that, when a Senate seat fell open in 1954, he routed the official Democratic candidate in a write-in campaign. He was re-elected in 1960, 1966, 1972, 1978, 1984, 1990 and 1996 by margins that were never less than handsome, even in his last race at the age of 93. In Washington he quickly became a legend, thanks to a 24-hour 18-minute filibuster on 29-30 August 1957 against an Eisenhower Administration civil-rights bill - a feat which ended only when the Senate doctor threatened to drag him physically from the floor.

All the while Thurmond was still, nominally, a Democrat. But the old Roosevelt coalition of northern liberals, labour and the Old South was visibly dying, its demise foreshadowed by Thurmond's own denunciation of the "radically liberal, socialist programme" of Eisenhower's successor John Kennedy. The last straw was Lyndon Johnson's embrace of the civil-rights cause. On 16 September 1964 Thurmond did the hitherto unthinkable and became a Republican.

Hardly had he switched sides, however, he was switching his racial policies in the opposite direction. Thurmond realised that, like it or not, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the political landscape of the deep South had changed for ever. Suddenly "Old Strom" the reactionary became the black man's champion - appointing a black staffer, loudly backing projects from which blacks would benefit, and even voting for the creation of a national holiday honouring Martin Luther King. In the Republican Party, he emerged as a major force, helping formulate the "Southern Strategy" which carried Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968 and ensured a Republican grip on the presidency for almost a quarter-century.

Had he been a member of the Westminster parliament, Thurmond would have been considered a model constituency MP. His national legislative achievements were minimal, but he was a master of what Americans call "the pork barrel", deviously extracting federal funds for home-state projects for decade after decade. No letter from a South Carolinan went unanswered; he gave the impression he knew everyone - and everyone indeed did know him (and many were grateful to him).

At least as much as for his longevity, Thurmond was celebrated for his fondness for the opposite sex. His first marriage was to his secretary. His second, at the age of 65, was to a former beauty queen 40 years his junior, by whom he sired four children in the space of a decade. Even in his nineties he was in trouble for allegedly over-zealous advances to a female Senate aide in a lift on Capitol Hill. "I'm glad South Carolina ladies are still so pretty," he would note in his few stump speeches in 1996, casting a pale and beady eye over the audience. In the famous words of his former Senate colleague John Tower of Texas, "When Strom dies, they'll have to beat down his pecker with a baseball bat to close the coffin lid."

The secret of both his virility and longevity, Thurmond maintained, was diet and exercise. He never smoked or touched alcohol, and lived off a diet laced with prunes, egg whites and cereals. Until well into his nineties, he worked out for an hour a day, while a hair transplant attempted to cement the illusion of of a man beyond time's ravages.

By then the Senate was Thurmond's whole life. As its President pro tempore by dint of long service, he had become fourth-ranking figure in the Constitution, ranking behind only the President, the Vice-President and the House Speaker in the line of succession to the White House and, during the post-election deadlock in 2000, not very complicated scenarios were set forth whereby he would enter the White House himself .

All the while however, his powers were fading, and the strands of fake hair, orange-brown like withered daffodil stalks plastered down over his otherwise bald pate, only served to underline it. The decline was cruelly visible in 1994 when he became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. One of Capitol Hill's most powerful bodies suffered an abrupt decline in influence, simply because Thurmond, half deaf and confined to reciting prepared notes, was physically not up to the job.

The decrepit old lion had outlived his time, shuffling through the corridors of Capitol Hill, propped up by aides, ever more frequently spending his weekends in hospital for observation. His sole - albeit huge - importance was his continuing existence on earth, ensuring for George W. Bush, the 10th President during his tenure, the vote that gave the Republicans control of the Senate - and even that was redundant after Senator James Jeffords crossed the floor.

Thurmond only retired from the Senate in January, at the age of 100. Long before he died he had prepared his final resting place in the family plot, alongside his father and mother and his beloved daughter Nancy Moore Thurmond, killed in a car accident in 1993. It lies in a corner of the cemetery of the First Baptist Church in Edgefield, in the shadow of a single Confederate flag.

Rupert Cornwell