'Ol' Strom' - racism, vanity and meager impact

November 29, 1998|By Theo Lippmann, Jr. | Theo Lippmann, Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Ol' Strom," by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson. Longstreet. 359 pages. $24. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond has been a U.S. senator for more than 43 years, longer than anyone else in history. But if you want to see his monument, don't look around the Senate or in the U.S. Code. He twice has been voted the "least effective" senator. That was long before old age overcame him in the 1990s.

In 1986, he was more or less a spectator as the Armed Services Committee revamped the nation's military establishment, even though he was the senior Republican on the committee. In 1982 he was an ineffectual critic of the extension of the Civil Rights Act though he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee (a post jTC gave up the Armed Service chairmanship for, in order to keep liberal Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias from chairing Judiciary).

About that time, by the 1980s, Thurmond had given up his long career of conspicuous racism, trailing Southern public opinion and other holders of statewide office in South Carolina and neighboring states. But the most repeated anecdote about him has this punch line about his anti-black speeches: "He believes that s-," South Carolina Sen. Olin Johnston says. This exhaustively researched biography also includes this assessment of Thurmond by George Wallace aide Tom Turnipseed: "a racist in denial. I've been there, and I know."

It is embarrasing and chilling to read some of Thurmond's white supremacist speeches in his early Senate years and before that as governor and third party presidential candidate in 1948. Yes, it's been half a century since he ran for president (and carried four Southern states). He had already been in public service for a quarter-century. He was a teacher, school superintendent, state legislator, judge and Army officer (went into France on D-Day by glider).

Bass and Thompson tell the long story fairly, often generously. They cover the waterfront of Thurmond's political life and tell much about his private life. Like Bill Clinton, he was quite a lecher.

In fact not even Clinton can match this: Thurmond's old flame was convicted of murder. He had sex with her in the back seat of a police car while she was being transported from the women's prison to death row on the night of her execution. He also had his Thomas Jefferson moments. He had a daughter by a black woman (and took care of the child financially in secret.)

The authors say Thurmond's "weakness, his character flaw" is "vanity." It's not his flaw, it's his essence. Southern senators denounced him for reckless "self-aggrandizement" in the fight against civil rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s. He resorted to hair plugs decades ago and refused to wear a hearing aid when he began to go deaf.

He tried to coerce newspapers to print all his handouts. "He wanted credit for every nickel the federal government turned over to South Carolina," one editor once complained. He had 23 different entities in the state named after him, and he had this etched on his first wife's gravestone: "The wife of a lawyer-governor presidential candidate-United States senator."

So South Carolinians will be reminded of Thurmond the personality long after they have forgotten his meager and usually negative impact on the life and especially the growth of his state and nation.

Theo Lippman Jr. has been writing about the Senate from the campaign trail to the Senate Press Gallery The Sun's editorial page suite since 1956. He is the author of biographies of Sens. Edmund Muskie and Edward Kennedy.

Pub Date: 11/29/98

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