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A couple of extraordinary gentleman of the 20th century

By Jackson Murphy
web posted June 30, 2003

Last week marked the passing of two extraordinary gentlemen. One was a controversial southerner who will always be associated with his segregationist past. The other gave meaning to the phrase behind the most powerful women in Britain lies a charming man with a penchant for peculiar eating habits and an early morning gin and tonic.

Both served during WWII, and saw their countries fight the Cold War, and experienced the rise of the information revolution, and the fall of communism. But it was the way the lived life that would distinguished them.

Strom ThurmondOn a day when the US Supreme Court ruled that sodomy is a-okay with them, it isn't surprising that conservative Strom Thurmond (1902-2003) decided to check out of this world. As Homer Simpson would say, "the ironing is delicious." Thurmond ran for president in 1948 and served in the Senate longer than any other man (1954-2003). He once spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes, in a filibuster during the civil rights debate in 1957, another record. He was a Democrat, a Dixiecrat and a Republican-a teacher, a lawyer, a judge, a soldier, governor, a senator, and more recently simply a dirty old man.

He was known for his views on race, stemming from that 1948 campaign, but spent much of his life trying to overcome that. Most of all he was a man elected, and reelected by the people of his state over, and over, and over again-a master of politics at its most primal, and local, level.

The thing about Strom is that while his fundamental political views were at times pretty insane, he lived a hell of a life, and the world would be a less colorful place without people like this womanizing old man.

Mark Steyn recounts a particularly 'Strom' moment when he was a circuit court judge. He is, "the only circuit court judge in South Carolina history to have made love to a condemned murderess as she was being transferred from the women's prison to Death Row.

This was Sue Logue, the only woman in the state ever to be sent to the chair, but not before she'd been sent to the back seat of Strom's car for a lively final ride. (It was a particularly bloody murder case that had begun when Mr. Logue's calf had been kicked to death by some other feller's mule.) I mention this not merely to be salacious and gossipy, but as an example of the extraordinary pageant that is Strom's life. If this were an appreciation of John Kerry, we'd have exhausted all the interesting stuff a couple of paragraphs up and you'd already have flipped to the sports section."

Baroness Thatcher and her husband Sir Denis at No. 10 Downing Street
Baroness Thatcher and her husband Sir Denis at No. 10 Downing Street

On the other hand this week also marks the passing of Sir Denis Thatcher (1915 -2003). He will generally be remembered as the guy behind the Iron Lady. The husband to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- a task that wouldn't sit well with many but that Thatcher carried off with a certain dignified grace.

He was everything Thurmond was not and every bit the understated gentleman that Thurmond could never be. Sir Denis once remarked, "For 40 wonderful years I have been married to one of the greatest women the world has ever produced. All I could produce -- small as it may be -- was love and loyalty."

Thatcher was famous for his bon mots. He once said the trick to surviving a boring foreign ministry dinner was to, "use the old army trick of leaning forward and putting my forefinger in the roof of my mouth. That way, if you fall asleep you either wake up or you're sick."

It must be said also that in reviewing the two men's obituaries and lives that one thing the British press do especially well is summing up a man's life. Here is a sample from The Telegraph:

"Thatcher was a man of simple tastes who favoured soups, smoked salmon, tinned tongue, corned beef, and baked beans on toast. Meat had to be cooked almost to a crisp; in a London restaurant, he once sent back his poussin with the instruction: 'I want you to take it away, kill it and cook it.' He hated the smell of fried onions, and detested garlic. As for drink, he refused ice because it 'diluted the alcohol'"

It was Thatcher who once said to his wife who disapproved of an 11 am gin and tonic, "My dear, it is never too early for a gin and tonic." He reminds us of a time when this sort of thing was carried off with out the scolding and quiet whispers that it would today -- a time when it was merely eccentric to be drinking in the morning.

Both men were at the very heart of their countries for most of the last half century. Always as bridesmaids, never the brides and they made it interesting to watch as they took every step.

Strom was a walking, or most recently shuffling, talking human interest story. "Considering that only 100 folks get to be senator out of a talent pool of almost 300 million, there's a lot of mediocrities in there. Strom Thurmond, as Democrat or Republican, as war hero or assiduous tender of his constituents or squire of generations of Miss South Carolinas, is the size of fellow a United States senator should be," wrote Steyn.

Many of the American writers detailing Strom's life last week, spent most of their time talking about how much the world changed around him, while failing to stop and smell the flowers that were his life. But the events these men lived through would not have been half as enjoyable without them being the men they were, extraordinary. One larger than life, the other happy to walk in its shadows.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Strom Thurmond, R.I.P. by W. James Antle III (June 30, 2003)
    When it comes to the media they only had one line on Strom Thurmond: ex-segregationist and former Democrat. W. James Antle III says Thurmond's legacy encompasses much more
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