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BOOKS & THE CULTURE 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 According 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 switched his allegiance from Democrat to Republican, and supported the hapless presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. In 1964, only eight years into a recordsetting 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 Senateand 52 years elsewhere now, two years after his death, is to open a can of political worms that well could pass for snakes. “When he dies, they’ll have to beat his pecker down with a baseball bat in order to close the coffin lid.” 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 minutesstill a recordagainst 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 Thurmondwatchers, trace what, in their subti tle, 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 the paradoxes throughout his career. As governor of South Carolina from 19471951, Thurmond pursued a relatively liberal programstronger 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 betterthough separateeducational facilities for blacks. At the same time, Thurmond favored the death penalty, loyalty oaths, and restrictions on immigration. Bass and 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 8, 2005