FLASHBACK:Strom Thurmond, Still a Senator, Celebrates 100th Birthday

[This article originally ran in the December 9, 2002, issue of HUMAN EVENTS.]

Interviewing Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.) is like listening to a talking history book. His vivid reminiscences of life in politics date back to when Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were battling it out for the White House.

During an animated interview in July 1996, Thurmond, a longtime HUMAN EVENTS subscriber who was then 94 and running for his eighth Senate term, not only brought historical figures such as FDR and Joe McCarthy to life for me, but also made the case for why he should be returned to office one last time.

“I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1932, first national convention I ever attended,” said Thurmond. “I voted for Gov. Roosevelt on all four ballots. I felt he was our best candidate and could do something about that terrible Depression.”

“When I ran for President on the States’ Rights Party ticket in ’48, it was not a segregationist campaign,” he said. “It was about just that: the rights of states against the power of the federal government. We carried four states [South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi], but Truman never forgave me. When I went to his inauguration . . . he and [Vice President Alben] Barkley drove by in an open car and my wife and I waved. Barkley started to wave back, but Truman grabbed his arm and said ‘Don’t wave at that [expletive deleted].’ ”

“He did some good things, I suppose, like dropping that bomb to end the war,” said Thurmond. “But he was also a very small man toward those who disagreed with him, like Gen. MacArthur and me.”

“I didn’t know Joe McCarthy that well, because I came to the Senate after he was censured in 1954 and he died three years later. But there was a lot of merit to what he was saying about Communists in government. Based on what the charges and evidence were, I would, as a lawyer and a former judge, have been very, very inclined to oppose censuring him had I been there for the vote.”

Thurmond, who had served in the Army during World War II and later became a reserve general, was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. So it did not surprise me that his passion for national defense fueled a desire to serve in the Senate a record 46 years, until he reached his 100th birthday, which he celebrated on December 5. “We have a President [Bill Clinton] who doesn’t believe in a strong defense,” said Thurmond in 1996. “We just passed a defense authorization bill $11 billion over what he requested. He wants to spend that money on other things, like social programs. How can he feel that way when the threats are all over the world-North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya?”

South Carolina voters agreed with the man many call “The Senator” or “Ol’ Strom” and granted his wish for one last term.

James Strom Thurmond has been most heralded in the media, of course, for his age and durability. He is almost surely the only present-day office-holder who can say that in his first race for office-running for the Edgefield County Board of Education 77 years ago-he received the votes of Civil War veterans (Confederate, of course). He also is the last senator to have participated in the D-Day landing on Normandy, having waived his deferment as a state circuit judge to join the Army at 39 shortly after Pearl Harbor. (By the end of the war, Thurmond had won 17 decorations, including the Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, and the Bronze Star for valor.)

As he liked to point out, he carried his state as a Democrat, as a States’ Rights candidate (for President), as a write-in candidate (in 1954, becoming the only person in history to become a U.S. senator through write-ins), and as a Republican (since 1964, when he switched parties to support the presidential bid of Sen. Barry Goldwater).

Because of his “Dixiecrat” race for President in 1948 and his steadfast opposition to civil rights legislation that included speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes on the Senate floor (the record for filibusters) in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act, it has been easy for the national media to characterize Thurmond as a racist. In truth, just like more liberal Southern senators such as J. William Fulbright (D.-Ark) and John Sparkman (D.-Ala), Thurmond did defend the segregationist practices of Southern states against what he deemed “a new kind of police state centered in Washington.” But he was not a hater of the Bilbo stripe and, while governor from 1946-50, successfully sought the abolition of the poll tax and more funds for black, albeit segregated, schools.

By the 1970s, Thurmond was appointing blacks to his staff and supporting civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act and a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. But while some dismissed this as a bow to the reality that blacks were a significant voting bloc in the South, it is fairer to say that Thurmond was logically following through on traditional Christian values he has always espoused.

A strong defense and strict construction of the law and the Constitution were the issues that most motivated the South Carolinian throughout his career. Archenemy Lyndon B. Johnson (D.-Tex.) as Senate majority leader from 1954 to 1960, however, thwarted Thurmond in his quest to win a seat on the Armed Services Committee. It was as a Republican that Thurmond eventually became the committee’s senior member and chairman.

In 1968, Thurmond threw his support to former Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination. As Tom Wicker of the New York Times reported, Nixon won Thurmond over “by promising strong national defense measures, including an anti-ballistic missile defense.”

When Republicans finally won control of the Senate in 1981, Thurmond first served as chairman of the Military Construction Subcommittee of Armed Services and, in that capacity, was a key player in Ronald Reagan’s rebuilding of U.S. military forces. He finally achieved his dream of chairing the committee in 1994.

Strom’s influence on the modern Republican Party cannot be understated. Four years after his own presidential bid, he campaigned vigorously as a Democrat-for-Eisenhower (“I served under him during the war and consider him a great leader”) and, after officially switching to the GOP in ’64, campaigned vigorously for other Republican office-holders throughout the South.

Edward Gurney of Florida, Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, and Jesse Helms of North Carolina all became the first Republican senators from their states with Thurmond’s help. As Tom Ellis, manager of Helms’ first race in 1972, told me, “Strom came into the state and raised money from all over the country for Jesse. He was a key to Jesse’s win.”

Late national GOP operative F. Clifton White, recalling the failure to pry Southern delegations from Nixon while managing Reagan’s bid for the Republican nomination at the Miami convention in 1968, told pundit Jules Witcover, “If it hadn’t been for Strom and Goldwater putting the heat on, Nixon never would have gotten the South.”

In supporting Nixon over Reagan that year, Thurmond told the Californian: “Son, you’ll be President someday. But not now.”

“From the time of the death of his first wife [Jean Crouch, a former Miss South Carolina whom Thurmond married while governor in 1946 and who died in 1960 at age 36] until about the time he married again [in 1968, to former beauty queen Nancy Moore, when the was 66 and she was 22], Sen. Thurmond spent a considerable amount of his time mentoring young people about politics and public service,” recalled John L. Napier, a onetime staffer in Thurmond’s office. Napier, who went on to become congressman and a federal judge, said, “In a sense, his office was a graduate school for political leadership.”

Late Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater also got his start on Thurmond’s staff, as did Nixon White House counsel Harry Dent, Pentagon counsel J. Fred Buzhardt, and scores of other South Carolinians who would serve in administrations from Nixon to George W. Bush.

The most poignant words about Strom Thurmond may have come in 1981 from author Wayne Greenshaw’s in Elephants in the Cottonfields. Comparing Thurmond to other Southern Republicans, Greenshaw concluded, “Perhaps he was the toughest and the strongest of all.”