The Republican senator from South...


December 07, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

STROM THURMOND, the Republican senator from South Carolina, had another birthday Saturday. He's 90.

BStrom has been in big-time politics a l o n g time. He and another Democrat came in one-two in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in his state five days before President-elect Bill Clinton was born. That was in August 1946. Two weeks later Thurmond won the run-off, and in those days, the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election.

He was elected and two years later ran for president as a third party candidate. He set a record for maximizing votes. He got only 2.4 percent of the popular vote, but he carried four states. George Wallace carried five states but had to get 13.5 percent to do it. Ross Perot got 19 percent and carried no states.

Thurmond has set a lot of records. He is the only senator ever elected by write-in votes. The only one ever to carry out a $H campaign promise to resign from the Senate before his term was up. (To emphasize he was the people's not the establishment's candidate. After resigning, he was promptly re-elected.) The only one to speak non-stop in the Senate for a full day -- 24 hours, 19 minutes in 1957, filibustering a civil rights bill.

Thurmond was a real stinker when it came to race relations in those days. Here's one of my favorite stories about Southern politics:

In 1956 most Southern Democratic senators were supporting Adlai Stevenson's bid for the presidential nomination. Harry Ashmore, the Arkansas editor and writer, was working for Stevenson. He asked South Carolina's other senator, Olin Johnston, if he could get Thurmond to delay a proposed segregationist "manifesto" by the Southern senators that would embarrass Stevenson. Johnston was sympathetic, but said it couldn't be done.

Why not? Because "Ole Strom really believes that ----!"

But he didn't! He was only reflecting the sentiment of his electorate. Like most successful politicians, Thurmond is a weather vane. In 1964 he switched parties as his state, outraged at Democratic civil rights policies, went Republican for the first time since the rigged Reconstruction election of 1876.

Thurmond is the only senator to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party since the direct election of senators began in 1912. What a state to do it in. South Carolina had been the least Republican state in the nation. The average Democratic vote in the 10 Senate elections prior to Strom's switch was 99.5 percent. In presidential elections, Stevenson carried S.C. twice. John F. Kennedy carried it. Al Smith did. Franklin D. Roosevelt equaled his body temperature there in 1936 -- 98.6 percent of the vote.

But today the Palmetto State is reliably Republican in presidential years, and Strom is a moderate on civil rights, reflecting the variability of the winds of change there.

Now he's approaching the Senate longevity record. Will he make it?

Thursday: The Actuaries and I.

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