Jurassic Senator Old guard: Strom Thurmond, 93, has lasted so long in the Senate that what many see as his antiquated thinking is back in style. He's intent on staying around to enjoy it.

March 04, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The oldest living United States Senator opens the session of the world's greatest deliberative body with two raps of his white gavel. "The Senate is now in session," twangs Strom Thurmond, the president pror everybody, a "How'ya doin'" here, a "Mighty glad to see ya" there, a pat on the back, a firm grip on the upper arm. His gait is gingerly, disjointed, as if he's not sure all the parts will hold together.

The only business at hand on this day is the annual reading of George Washington's farewell address. It gives a citizen in the gallery a chance to crack to his friend that the senator heard the speech first from the general himself.

Strom Thurmond has probably outlived the fashion for such jokes. He is old, so what else is new? In fact, on Friday, he becomes the oldest person to ever serve in the U.S.

Senate. On that day he surpasses the record of Theodore Green, of Rhode Island, who retired from the Senate when he was 93 years and 93 days old.

Strom Thurmond was born during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Before the Panama Canal was dug. Before the Mexican Revolution, World War I, the Russian Revolution. He became governor of South Carolina the year Bill Clinton first saw light. He is almost half the age of the U.S. Constitution, and like that document, an artifact of America's political history.

To some, he is a reminder of the bad old days in the South, a fossil from the violent reign of Jim Crow. He is the last of the powerful intransigents who tried to prevent one of the great social movements of the century from fulfilling its promise to black Americans. He is a man out of his time, archaic: the Jurassic Senator.

At 93, his skin is the color of old cement; his eyes glow dully beneath descending brows. He has been known to doze, now and then, at committee hearings. But there is life in him yet, and he thinks he knows why.

"I believe exercise and diet and having an optimistic attitude toward life account for it," Mr. Thurmond says.

He does push-ups and sit-ups; he bends and twists, lifts weights and pedals a stationary bicycle. He eats prunes. He swims, he walks. He is the only man in the Senate who has more hair today (thanks to transplants) than he had in 1964. It's darker than it was then, too.

Strom Thurmond likes to define himself by his physicality. He was a high school athletic coach. He landed in Normandy on Day and won five battle stars in World War II. He has married two young beauty queens, each a fraction of his age.

He includes among his accomplishments, in the material his office hands out, those events and incidents that relate to his physical prowess. The time in 1964 when he wrestled a colleague to the floor outside a Senate hearing room. The time in 1957 when he filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against a civil rights bill.

He set a Senate record with that grand, if vain, gesture in obstructionism. But it proved beyond doubt his prodigious staying power. At the end of this Homeric stemwinder, as he came off the floor, one of his staffers, Harry Dent, rushed to the senator with a bucket -- just in case he couldn't make it to the men's room.

"He was insulted," Mr. Dent said. In fact, he went into his office and made phone calls for three hours before discretely heading for the john.

Strom Thurmond has spent 41 years of his life in the Senate; he intends to be around a good deal longer. At a time when a record number of senators are retiring from office, he is running for an eighth term as South Carolina's senior senator. (The "junior" senator, Democrat Fritz Hollings, is 74.) It is expected that he will be opposed next November by a man not yet half his age, Democrat Elliott Close, scion of a textile fortune.

Senator Thurmond is popular in the Palmetto state. He has a reputation for probity and simple living. He always flies coach. And though a lot of the young suburban Republicans who have moved to South Carolina in recent years from places like Ohio and Michigan might be a little ashamed of him, no one at the moment poses a serious threat.

The Storm Age

People in South Carolina are accustomed to thinking of Strom Thurmond as an old man with a future. "The graveyards are full of politicians who were waiting for Thurmond to die," says Dave Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University.

If he wins another six-year term, it will position him to mark up another geriatric achievement next spring: to become the longest serving U.S. senator in history, an honor currently held by the late Carl T. Hayden of Arizona, with 41 years, 10 months of service.

There was a time when Strom Thurmond had grander ambitions than simply staying on, and his actions more consequence. In 1948, as governor of South Carolina, he ran for the presidency as head of the segregationist States' Rights Party. In 1964, he switched to the Republican Party and supported Barry Goldwater's presidential bid. His change of allegiance precipitated the rush of the entire South into the Republican fold.

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