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Strom Thurmond, R.I.P.

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 30, 2003

Strom ThurmondThis is an article I am genuinely surprised to be writing. A hundred years is a long time to live and the likelihood is that a person who has reached such an advanced age will die sooner rather than later. Yet you come to expect some people to always be around, especially when they have been a part of the nation's public life as long as Strom Thurmond. You know it is irrational to regard any human being as a permanent fixture on this planet, yet at a certain level you entertain the illusion anyway. An event like Sen. Thurmond's passing shatters this illusion and reinforces your awareness of your own mortality.

"A giant oak in the forest of public service has fallen," remarked Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings, Thurmond's colleague – and junior senator – for 35 years. Indeed it has. Politics tends to revolve around power, but elective office is supposed to be the calling of those who wish to serve the voting public. One of the most remarkable things about Thurmond's long career was his emphasis on service.

In its coverage of Thurmond's death, The State recounted some of the stories of people he had helped during his 48 years in the U.S. Senate. The little old lady who lost her Social Security benefits because somebody gave her a TV set and put her over some income limit. A young immigrant from Sierra Leone who the INS was going to deport after his father died and mother was afflicted by breast cancer during the process of applying for permanent residency. A widow who wasn't allowed by the BATF to keep her husband's badge because he was two months short of the required 20 years of service. The woman who could not get her medical records she needed for a long-awaited cancer surgery from National Institutes of Health because it was the weekend.

Not only did Thurmond's office help each of these people, but the senator often intervened personally in their cases, one of the main reasons his constituent service was so effective. Reading through obituaries and newspaper stories reflecting on his life, you get the sense that a lot of observers and colleagues vaguely disapproved of his priorities. Biographers Jack Bass and Marilyn Thompson estimate that his office handled 750,000 requests; a 1986 survey found that one South Carolina resident in five had been helped by Thurmond.

His interest in helping South Carolinians is talked about like a quaint preoccupation with potholes while it is noted that he has his name on a lot less landmark legislation than one might expect given the length of his service. But the problem with too many politicians today is that they see themselves as public masters rather than public servants, going on frequent law-making benders. Instead Thurmond helped his constituents navigate the bureaucratic minefields his colleagues were busily setting up. "The most pleasant sound Strom Thurmond ever heard," former press secretary Mark Goodin recalled, "was the sound of bureaucrats' knuckles as he was cracking them."

Of course, he wasn't an entirely atypical politician. There were issues where he clearly followed rather than led. His empathy for ordinary citizens adversely effected by the mindless enforcement of rules did not lead him to challenge segregated drinking fountains or the practice of denying some South Carolinians opportunities available to others based on race. He reflected and was often willing to cater to some of the ugliest prejudices of his time, even when the result was defending unjust policies. The movement that inextricably tied "state's rights" to racial segregation in Americans' minds probably did as much to hurt the cause of constitutionally limited government and the Tenth Amendment as anything the liberals did on their own.

Yet Thurmond's record should be considered in its entirety. It is easy for critics living in 2003 to proclaim what they would have done in the South Carolina of 1948. Early in his career, his "Write Your Name" campaign increased literacy among blacks and whites alike. As governor, Thurmond abolished the discriminatory poll tax and made sure members of a white mob that lynched a black man were put on trial. His appointment of a black physician to a state medical board probably cost him his first U.S. Senate election in 1950.

On the occasion of Jesse Helms' retirement, Walter Russell Meade pointed out that Southern white conservatives like he and Thurmond actually played an important role in bridging the racial divide. Previous generations of Southern populists exemplified by Pitchfork Ben Tillman violently resisted changes in race relations. But they in the end accepted them and by doing so helped end the rancor and division. Thurmond particularly made important overtures: The man who once opposed school integration enrolled his daughter in a 50 percent black public school to be taught by a black teacher. He was the first Southern member of Congress to hire a black staff member and support black judicial appointments. He voted for the Martin Luther King holiday, a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

While not as praiseworthy as actually fighting Jim Crow when it was entrenched, his change was nevertheless important. In his last Senate race in 1996, he won 22 percent of the black vote, the highest percentage received by a South Carolina Republican. The example he set remains valuable even if you assume that it was motivated only by political considerations once black South Carolinians could vote. It is, however, worthwhile to note that even as he progressed in years he never gave a sense of looking back and the only gaffe in this area actually came from Trent Lott. (There were, on the other hand, a few gaffes involving Strom's comportment toward women.)

Republicans should remember Thurmond as the man who helped break the Democrats' stranglehold on the South, first by joining the party and supporting Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and then by delivering Southern states to Richard Nixon 1968. He compiled a solidly conservative voting record and was a loyal ally to five GOP presidents.

If Strom Thurmond had never run for Senate he still would have had a memorable career. He had been an educator, attorney and politician. A soldier by choice who was 41 when he landed on the beaches at Normandy and earned a Bronze Star for valor. Yet he ran, won as a write-in-candidate and served until his hundredth year. He had virtues and flaws, but led a long, memorable life. Let us remember that he served.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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