Longest-serving senator dies after changing nation

One-time segregationist led South to favor GOP

Strom Thurmond : 1902 - 2003

June 27, 2003|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a one-time Democratic segregationist who helped fuel the rise of the modern conservative Republican Party in the South, died last night, his family announced.

He was 100 and had been the longest-serving senator in history.

Thurmond, whose physical and political endurance were legendary - he holds the record for solo Senate filibustering - retired on Jan. 5, at the age of 100 after more than 48 years in office.

Thurmond died at 9:45 p.m., his son Strom Jr. said. He had been living in a newly renovated wing of a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield since he returned to the state from Washington this year.

While age took its inevitable toll on Thurmond as he neared retirement, he wielded political power virtually to the end, prevailing upon President Bush to appoint his 29-year-old son, Strom Jr., U.S. attorney in South Carolina in 2001.

His was a remarkable career that spanned much of the 20th century, embracing some of its proudest achievements and most lamentable episodes.

During World War II, Mr. Thurmond helped defend democracy from assault by the Nazis. Then, in the years shortly after he helped defend segregation from assault by his fellow Democrats.

The decorated war hero would at home become a warrior of resistance, running for president as the candidate of the Dixiecrats. His battle cry of "states rights' was code for denying civil rights to blacks.

Yet, the former South Carolina governor was also a master politician who managed to ride the crest of changing trends in the South. In 1964, he became the first senior Democrat to bolt his party for the GOP in a region that has now witnessed almost a complete turnover.

Thurmond's continued success in a state where 30 percent of the voters are black was credited to the high premium he put on constituent service - all delivered retail. Even in his later years, Thurmond rarely missed a peach festival, or failed to telephone a bride with personal congratulations. A visitor to his office almost never got away without a souvenir key chain.

"I have nothing but positive memories." Mr. Thurmond said during a May 1997 Senate tribute from his colleagues when he exceeded the previous record for longevity in office. "I hope that if I leave any legacy, it is that answering the call of public service is an honorable and worthy vocation." Mr. Thurmond was colorful in way rarely found in politics anymore. He had a drawl as thick as sour mash whiskey, remained well into his 90's an unabashed admirer of women.

During President Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial before the Senate, an attractive female lawyer on the president's defense team made a point of looking directly at Thurmond as she argued her case against calling White House intern Monica Lewinsky as a witness. He responded by becoming one of the few Republicans to help the Democrats in blocking what would have likely been the sensational appearance of the young woman whose affair with the president was at the center of the impeachment charges.

"I would have liked it." he admitted later with a twinkle. "But it wouldn't be well for the Senate."

But he also prided himself on being a clean-living Baptist. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke. He kept to a diet of fruits and vegetables and advocated vigorous exercise long before it was fashionable.

Among the many tributes his physical and mental stamina, was Mr. Thurmond's second marriage at age 66 to a 22- year- old beauty queen. The pair would have four children and reign as one of Washington's power couples for 22 years until their separation in 1991. That was just one of many phases of a life that was not only long but extraordinarily full and varied.

Thurmond landed on the beach in Normandy in a glider, earning medals for his role in the World War II invasion force that he joined at age 39. Left behind was a promising legal career that put him on South Carolina's circuit court bench at 35. Earlier he had served as a state senator, school superintendent, teacher and coach.

His decorations for heroism helped propel Mr. Thurmond back into Democratic politics, where he quickly became a rising star on the national scene. But for the next two decades he made his mark as a warrior for the cause of segregation.

As South Carolina governor, he lead the resistance to civil rights proposals by President Truman - stalking out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 - and challenged Truman's re-election that year as a third-party candidate of the Dixiecrats.

First elected to the Senate in 1954 as a write-in candidate, Thurmond was one of the chamber's last holdouts in defense of the tradition of white supremacy. He waged a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster - another of his record-setting feats - against a 1957 civil rights bill so modest than even fellow segregationists supported it.

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