Strom: The Sweet Old Bigot

Strom: The Sweet Old Bigot BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond By Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson Public Affairs 368 pages, $27.50 ccording to a poll of Capitol Hill legislators that was conducted by Pageant magazine in 1964, the least effective member of Congress was Strom Thurmond. A similar survey of Washington journalists concurred. It was the same year that Thurmond voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act (“the worst, most unreasonable, and unconstitutional legislation that has ever been considered by the Congress”), switched his allegiance from Democrat to Republican, and supported the hapless presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. In 1964, only eight years into a record-setting 48-year tenure in the United States Senate, Thurmond might have seemed little more than a bigot and a buffoon, a man who stood on his head to flaunt his vigor and on states’ rights to rationalize his racism. From a longer perspective, it is clear that no senator of the past 50 years, except Lyndon Johnson, has had more emphatic an effect on American history. Because of Strom, as much as anyone else, the ship of state is now turned starboard. By campaigning for Richard Nixon and neutralizing the appeal of George Wallace, Thurmond delivered enough of the South to guarantee the defeat of Hubert Humphrey and begin eradication of the New Deal and the Great Society. From his perch on the Judiciary Committee, he was instrumental in dismantling the Warren Court and realigning federal benches. From his perch on the Armed Services Committee, the senator from South Carolina helped create the garrison state. His contempt for civil rights prolonged the agony in the death of Jim Crow and set in motion the transformation of the South into a white Republican redoubt. His early patronage of Lee Atwater and Armstrong Williams introduced toxins into the national body politic. Even in his final months in office, the Senate’s only centenarian still had the power to topple the body’s leadership; when Trent Lott publicly declared that if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 the nation would have avoided many problems, the repercussions from this veiled attack on civil rights led to Lott’s replacement as majority leader by Bill Frist. It often takes a while to determine how to deal with something. Though the tin can was devised by Peter Durand in 1810, it took another 48 years before Ezra Warnet invented the can opener in 1858. To measure Thurmond’s 48 years in the Senate—and 52 years elsewhere—now, two years after his death, is to open a can of political worms that well could pass for snakes. Though Thurmond recorded 16,348 votes, his legislative accomplishment was meager; the most notable bill that he, a teetotaler who daily downed an eight-ounce dose of prune juice, could take credit for mandated health labels on wine bottles. Thurmond was an obstructionist, most notably in 1957 when he filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes—still a record—against a civil rights bill that ended up passing 60-15. Accepting the presidential nomination of the breakaway Dixiecrats in 1948, he proclaimed, “I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” One of the authors of the Southern Manifesto that swore resistance to Brown vs. Board of Education, Thurmond maintained that, “The white people of the South are the greatest minority in this Nation.” On July 9, 1964, desperate to block Senate confirmation of a moderate from Florida, he wrestled Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough to the floor to keep him from the committee room and creating a quorum. In their new biography, Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson, journalists who are longtime Thurmond-watchers, trace what, in their subtitle, they call “The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond.” Stressing the “complexity” of their subject, they aim to salvage him from the racist, sexist caricature that he himself did much to fashion. Without minimizing the man’s villainy (Bass, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress from South Carolina in 1978, has no reason to stroke Strom, who once called him “a skunk.”) they emphasize the paradoxes throughout his career. As governor of South Carolina from 1947-1951, Thurmond pursued a relatively liberal program—stronger child labor laws, an end to the poll tax, conservation of natural resources, prosecution of lynchers, and a state minimum wage. He advocated free textbooks, higher teacher salaries, and better—though separate—educational facilities for blacks. At the same time, Thurmond favored the death penalty, loyalty oaths, and restrictions on immigration. Bass and Thompson suggest that the exhilaration of his anointment as standard bearer for Southern white resentment, carrying four states—South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi—against Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey in 1948, transformed Thurmond into the obdurate reactionary who entered the Senate in 1955 through a write-in vote (the only time anyone not officially on the ballot has been elected to either house of Congress). Thurmond’s “complexities” often turn out to be contradictions, even dissimulations. This is most apparent in two areas: sex and race. Though he affected the air of a courtly Southern gentleman, Bass and Thompson frequently refer to Thurmond as “a ladies’ man,” which they seem to use as a euphemism for erotomaniac. They describe Thurmond’s marriage to Jean Crouch when she was 20 and he was 44, and then, after her death, to Nancy Moore when she, a beauty queen, was 22 and he was 66. But they do not trouble to document the Senator’s prolific lechery, except to allude to his grotesque propensity for groping any woman within reach. An elevator ride with Thurmond often meant being chased with nowhere to hide. Bass and Thompson do recount one notorious episode in which Thurmond had sex with Sue Logue, a convicted murderer, while she was being driven from the women’s penitentiary to the building in Columbia that housed death row. Senator John Tower, whose own sexual misconduct prevented his confirmation as secretary of defense, observed about Thurmond, “When he dies, they’ll have to beat his pecker down with a baseball bat in order to close the coffin lid.” During his final years in the Senate, Thurmond, as if luring in forest creatures, took to handing out candy to his new female colleagues, even as he distributed unwanted pats and palpations. Thurmond was present when Bob Packwood was forced to resign his Senate seat over charges of sexual harassment. A middle-aged moderate from Oregon could not get away with the crude behavior that was tolerated, even chuckled over, in an old fart from South Carolina. Sally Quinn recalled a public dinner at which Thurmond grabbed both her and her mother by their derrieres. “Strom, you old devil,” exclaimed Quinn’s mother, as if age confers privilege even on the devil.Thurmond voted to remove Bill Clinton from office, for indiscretions not nearly as egregious as his own. Is this complexity or merely hypocrisy? But Thurmond’s pecker continues to keep his coffin open. As early as 1948, leaders of the South Carolina NAACP were accumulating photographs of a black woman they alleged was Thurmond’s daughter. In his 1968 book Gothic Politics in the Deep South, Robert Sherrill mentioned Thurmond’s “paternal interest in a Negro girl,” without specifying a name. Later, Thompson was convinced of her identity but could not get the woman to go on the record. However, shortly after Thurmond’s death, 78-year-old Essie Mae Washington-Williams came forward to announce that she was indeed his daughter. As she explained in Dear Senator: A Memoir By the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, published earlier this year, Washington-Williams’s mother, Carrie Butler, became pregnant at 16 while a domestic in Thurmond’s parents’ household. The new father abruptly skipped town, and Butler gave her baby to relatives in Pennsylvania. Essie Mae was 16 before she met her increasingly prominent father, whom she was never to acknowledge in public. Unlike Thurmond’s white children, the daughter that he conceived with Butler lived her life as black, when, due in part to her father’s policies, that meant diminished opportunities. Bass and Thompson bracket their biography with accounts of the Essie Mae Washington-Williams revelations, and throughout the book they crosscut between developments in her life and in her famous father’s. They see “complexity” in the discrepancy between Thurmond’s racist politics and his generosity toward a black daughter whom, over the years, he secretly sent funds totaling more than $100,000. He was a patrician with the common touch, an indifferent orator who spoke for millions. Though he lived long enough to vote for the Martin Luther King Holiday and to extend the Voting Rights Act he had initially opposed, Thurmond, unlike George Wallace, never apologized for his role in maintaining apartheid in America. “Ol’ Strom. He’s sump’n, ain’t he?” marveled a bystander to Bass during a campaign stop by Thurmond in 1972. This biography, which reprints an effusive eulogy by Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, is written out of awe more than odium. But longevity and a folksy manner cannot camouflage the hardships and injustices caused by this man’s extended hold on power. A life-size statue of Strom Thurmond erected in the Senator’s native Edgefield, South Carolina, got it just about right, until a town leader removed a bug with a blow- torch. Beneath the great man’s suit jacket, under his left rump, artist Maria Kirby-Smith had sculpted a cockroach. Steven G. Kellman’s Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth will be published by W. W. Norton in August.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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