The oldest mover in town

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina stands for re-election today. If he wins, he could celebrate his 100th birthday on Capitol Hill. But can he still hack it? Rupert Cornwell reports
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In these parts, when the subject of Old Strom comes up, it's not his three quarters of a century in public office they talk about, or his all-time record filibuster in the US Senate, or even his legendary fondness for the ladies. The topic is the Logue-Timmerman feud, bizarre even by the ancient, colourful and sometimes sinister standards of Edgefield, South Carolina.

It started back in 1940, and when all was done eight people had died, three of them in the state's electric chair. Davis Timmerman's mule had kicked to death a calf belonging to his neighbour Wallace Logue, and one thing led to another. In an argument over compensation for the calf, Timmerman killed Logue. Then Logue's widow, Sue, and his brother, George, hired a gunman to murder Timmerman. When the sheriff and his deputy came to arrest the pair, they were ambushed and shot dead. Eventually a 39-year- old local judge called Strom Thurmond, who knew Sue (some still whisper he had a fling with her), went to the house and persuaded the Logues to surrender. They and the hired assassin were eventually executed in March 1943. But Edgefield's 75-year old mayor, William Reel Jr, who happens to be a distant cousin of the oldest sitting Senator in American history, recounts the story as if it were yesterday. "Think what you like about Strom, he's a very gutsy individual."

But Senator Strom is far more than that. He is the last active Titan of the old South, a physical link with the Civil War and a time capsule of American history. In a sense, history has already claimed him. A bronze statue of Thurmond adorns Edgefield's main square. The Strom Thurmond Armoury houses the local unit of the National Guard, there is a Strom Thurmond school, a Strom Thurmond lake, and a Strom Thurmond Highway. In the headquarters of the Edgefield County History Society, a room is already dedicated to his exploits. But this week, the town's most famous son sets out to make more history - by winning an unprecedented eighth six-year term in the Senate at the tender age of 93.

Edgefield is a prosperous little town of 3,000, whose peacefulness belies its sometimes stormy racial past. The county has produced no fewer than 10 South Carolina governors, the last of them Thurmond, all of them segregationists and none more so than "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, whose late 19-century solution to the Negro "problem" was a terse "We shot 'em". These days, Reel says, things are fine, "though there's a couple of blacks I'd call rabble rousers, stirring up trouble in the school system." The sort of place, in short, where everyone knows everyone, and most certainly everyone knows Strom.

In what is surely his last electoral battle, Thurmond today faces for the first time a contested primary - although he should easily defeat his challenger Harold Worley, a state representative who says simply that his opponent is "too old to serve". But the general election in November could be another matter, when his opponent will be Elliot Close, a telegenic young Democrat with a personal fortune and no political baggage. If Strom wins, he will next March become the longest serving Senator ever. Should he complete the term, he would become the first sitting Senator to celebrate his 100th birthday.

As no other, Strom Thurmond embodies the American South; its disasters, its defiance and the compromises that have been forced upon it. He is the only serving US politician to have received the votes of Civil War veterans, when he ran for superintendent of Edgefield County School Board in 1924. (Bob Dole, the distinctly elderly presumptive Republican nominee this year, was only one at the time; "Strom makes me feel like a child," Dole likes to jest on the campaign trail.) Half a century ago he was elected governor of South Carolina, and ran for President in 1948 on the segregationist "states rights" ticket, carrying four states and winning 39 electoral college votes. He still holds the Senate filibuster record of 24 hours and 18 minutes, against a 1957 civil rights bill.

But Old Strom can change, too. In 1964 he switched party, from Democrat to Republican, harbinger of a trend that has now transformed the politics of the South. Once civil rights had become a fait accompli, Thurmond was the first of the old Dixie guard on Capitol Hill to hire black staffers. These days, believe it or not, he even supports term limits. But no lasting legislative achievements are to his name. His goals have been to roll back federal government in general, and advance the interests of the state of South Carolina in particular. As a constituency MP, he would be superb. The memory is going a bit now, but Old Strom still remembers a face. A bereavement in Edgefield County, or a severe illness, invariably brings a personal letter from the Senator.

And they cherish him, too, for his eye for women. Thurmond's first wife was his secretary when he was governor. He is said to have proposed in a letter he dictated to her while doing calisthenic exercises in the governor's office. His second wife, Nancy, was a beauty queen, 40 years his junior. He married her when he was 66 and sired four children in the space of seven years. They are separated now, and those old eyes are roving again. "So glad to see South Carolina ladies are still so pretty," he typically starts a speech, his gaze drinking in a choice member of the audience, unbothered by such late 20th century niceties as sexual harassment. "When Strom dies," the late Texas senator John Tower once famously remarked, "they'll have to beat his pecker down with a baseball bat to close the coffin lid".

But Thurmond has earned his long Indian summer. He has never smoked or taken a drink. He works out for an hour a day, his diet is laced with prunes, egg whites and cereals. And his present eminence is lofty indeed: doyen, or president pro tempore of the Senate, by virtue of his age, Thurmond is, according to the Constitution, third in line for the presidency. If Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, fell under the proverbial bus along Pennsylvania Avenue, Old Strom would be in the White House.

As it is, he sits atop the Senate, ceremonially opening proceedings every day it is in session. Three bangs of the gavel, and Thurmond intones the age-old instruction in a molasses-thick Dixie drawl, "Thuh Senet'll caahm torduh". And come to order it did on the day I was there, to hear a minister deliver the daily prayer urging "the Lord to remind us of the coming judgement, its inevitability, certainty and finality..." His head bowed, Thurmond listens intently. Then business begins in earnest.

"Thyaabel ackin' leehduh framiss'ippi 'sreconaayzd." At which point, duly recognised, the indisputably able acting Republican majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, rises to outline the day's schedule. Thurmond, steady but slow, descends from his perch, taking with deliberate care the steps he must have covered ten thousand times as he leaves the chamber. He is a bigger man than you expect, with beady blue eyes, dressed in a light grey suit, white shirt and red tie, held by a broad silver pin. Most striking is his hair, transplanted into a bald pate some 20 years ago. Once it was rusty orange. Now it is brown, swept back from a pockmarked forehead like dry daffodil stalks in summer.

Is Old Strom past it? By most reasonable standards the answer, surely, is yes. Outwardly, apart from the slow gait, only his hearing betrays him (his aides implore him to use a hearing aid to prevent embarrassing repetitions of questions). But the mind is starting to slip. Thurmond- watchers say there are good and bad days; mornings are usually fine, afternoons sometimes a disaster. Increasingly he confines himself to a script, his utterances programmed by aides.

Beyond doubt, his fading powers have hastened the decline of the Armed Services Committee, which he chairs. Not long ago, it virtually made American defence policy; now the Committee is all but ignored. When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, there was an attempted coup to oust Thurmond. But Bob Dole, the majority leader, would not hear of it. The Senate above all protects its own. Take Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chaired the committee before Thurmond, and surely as upset as anyone by its diminished standing. But Nunn has ordered his staff from making any derogatory remarks about his successor's powers, on or off the record.

And the last campaign may yet be similarly genteel, less a race than a scripted lap of honour with the subtext, "Abandon me if you dare". The betting is that South Carolinians will stand by their man. Misgivings abound, but not enough to overcome gratitude: Old Strom has done so much, if he is asking for one more term, then so be it. And the glimmer of another record does no harm; why not give this political Methuselah a chance to hit a Senatorial century?

Jesse Eggers, a stripling of 82 and, like seemingly everyone in Edgefield, a personal friend of Thurmond, puts the ambivalence this way: "Personally, I don't think he should run. But then again, I think he deserves to be in the Senate - and if he had to leave it would kill him." And indeed, with his family grown and his wife gone, the Senate is his existence. The place protects and venerates its elders. Its traditions, its clubbiness, its slow comforting rhythms, are a psychological life support system.

But sooner or later, the last division bell will sound. Thurmond will be buried in the family plot at the First Baptist Church cemetery alongside the tombs of his father and mother, a brother and his beloved daughter, Nancy Moore Thurmond, who died in a hit-and-run accident three years ago.

The cemetery is a magical corner of the old South, bisected by a small stream and haunted by the ghosts of causes lost, where a single Confederate flag keeps vigil over mossy, scarcely legible gravestones. Here he will rest, and for his epitaph maybe they could do worse than use the same lines, borrowed from Hamlet's musings on his dead father, that adorn the statue in the square: "Take him all in all, he is a man. We shall not see his like again."