Old enough to be Dole's dad - and still standing

DURING a congressional debate last year a Democratic senator declared that if Cicero were alive he would have opposed a Republican proposal for balancing the budget. Whereupon Strom Thurmond, identified by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest senator in American history, leapt to his feet and cried: "I knew Cicero! Cicero was a friend of mine. And he was FOR the balanced budget amendment!"

The Republican from South Carolina has been a US senator for the last 40 of his 93 years. Last week, declaring he had "unfinished business", he announced that he was running for re-election on 5 November.

This is good news for Bob Dole, who will be taking on Bill Clinton for the presidency on the same day. Described by his detractors as too old for the White House, Mr Dole, at 72, is young enough to be Mr Thurmond's son. In a recent speech the senator from Kansas quipped that he was planning to appoint Mr Thurmond his vice-presidential candidate in order to give his ticket some "age balance".

On the other hand, among the cruel younger generation, Mr Dole suffers from the perception that he and his South Carolina colleague are of the same vintage. David Letterman, the late-night TV talk-show host, listed last month "the top 10 ways" Mr Dole celebrated his victory in the primaries. Included on the list was, "he went cruising for chicks with Strom Thurmond".

The joke more appropriately fitted Mr Thurmond than Mr Dole, who is too consumed with realising his political dreams to have time for any other pursuits. Two years ago the nonagenarian caused a minor scandal in prissy Washington, making it on to the front page of a congressional weekly called The Hill, after he squeezed the arm of a 26-year-old female reporter and whispered, "You sure are a cute girl".

Mr Thurmond, who sports hair implants dyed orange, is such a favourite among his constituents that few will be betting against the old rogue in the election. Those who doubt he will achieve his ambition of staying in the Senate until he is 100 - which he will if he is elected and lives - fail to take into account that he is nothing if not manly.

An inveterate exerciser who lifts weights every day, Mr Thurmond married a 22-year-old beauty queen when he was in his fifties and sired the last of his four children at the age of 67. A Senate colleague from Texas remarked at the time: "When he dies they'll have to beat his pecker down with a baseball bat to close the coffin lid."

His oldest living senator status places him constitutionally fourth in line for the US presidency. In the event of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich all dying in a plane crash, Mr Thurmond would be called upon to take over the world's most powerful job.

However remote, the notion is nonetheless alarming. First there is his record. During his first 30 years in politics - he entered the South Carolina senate in 1933 - he espoused unapologetically racist positions. While running for president on a segregationist ticket against Harry Truman in 1948, he declared: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negroes into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation."

In 1964 he hit upon a novel method to prevent a fellow senator from going into the chamber to vote for a civil rights bill. "I just threw him on the floor and put a scissors on him until he agreed not to go in. I just sat on him," Mr Thurmond recalled two years ago in the New York Times. He duly fell into line with contemporary mores, however, turning out in the early 1970s to be the first Southern senator to recruit black people to his staff.

Today all his staff, as well as most of his colleagues in both parties, are fiercely loyal to him - in public, at any rate. There are those who privately mutter about his qualifications to fill the sensitive post of chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee. It is perhaps partly on account of the neglect into which the committee has fallen that last year the Congress presented President Clinton with a defence budget that exceeded the Pentagon request by $7bn (pounds 4.6bn).

At best, the in-house mutterers say, he gets lost in the details of defence policy; at worst, especially when he loses his temper, he momentarily forgets where he is. Utterly dependent on his staff, he has one aide whose job it is, they say, to put him to bed and get him up in the morning. However, for sentimental reasons, and because Americans love a record- breaker, no one in the party hierarchy is opposing his bid for re-election. Which possibly reflects on the paralysing circularity of the legislative games they play on Capitol Hill.

Mr Thurmond provides amusing evidence of a trait common to all humanity, but particularly characteristic of Americans: the refusal to accept life's tragic destiny. As Mr Thurmond's old friend Cicero once put it, "No one is so old as to think he could not live another year."

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