Strom Thurmond, who died yesterday at the age of 100, was the longest-serving U.S. senator in history and the oldest person ever to hold that office. That secures his place in the trivia books, but history will remember him more for his resistance to racial integration, expressed in his 1948 statement that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”
Half a century afterwards, with race an unhealed wound in our politics, Thurmond could still ignite passions. When Trent Lott paid tribute to the centenarian at his last birthday party by saying that America “wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years” had Thurmond been elected president, the ensuing controversy forced Lott to resign as Senate Majority Leader.
Yet Thurmond himself had reached the point where, no matter how strongly people condemned his past, practically no one spoke ill of the man. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was certainly by the time of his last campaign.
One day in the fall of 1996, I was sitting in a Yale dining hall, listening to some professors discuss the upcoming elections. Polls at the time suggested that the Democrats might retake the Senate, and all the faculty members present were anxiously rooting for this. Then one of the group, a distinguished sociologist with all the marks of the left-wing intellectual — sandals, beard, beret and a record of marching with the university’s maintenance staff whenever they went on strike — introduced a lighter note.
“How about Strom Thurmond?” the sociologist said with a smile. “Wouldn’t it be something to have a hundred-year-old senator?”
All the bien pensant scholars joined him in regarding this prospect — the reelection of an unrepentant former segregationist, possibly tipping the balance in favor of the hated GOP — like the latest news of feisty Great-Aunt Sally, still taking her morning constitutional when all her contemporaries were dead or vegetating in retirement homes.
No ordinary politician could pull that off. Thurmond was a master, and retained his touch well into his 90s. At the 1996 Republican National Convention, he showed his aplomb in an encounter with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, covering the event for MTV.
The burly rapper approached the senator in the lobby of the convention center and asked him, on camera, if he had anything to say to African-American youth. It seemed a sure recipe for embarrassment — excruciating or delectable, depending on your politics.
Thurmond answered with some boilerplate about equal opportunity for all.
But, Chuck D insisted, had that always been his position?
The senator smiled. “The times have changed, and I’ve changed with the times,” he said.
That was enough to disprove rumors of senility, but it wouldn’t have sufficed to charm his fiercest opponents (those whom he hadn’t outlived). It was Thurmond’s sheer endurance that finally won almost everybody’s admiration.
When Thurmond was in his late eighties, on a trip to some remote part of South Carolina, a mix-up required him to share a hotel room with one of his staff. Lying in bed at the end of an exhausting day, the young aide was startled to hear the senator moving around on the floor. Doing push-ups, as it turned out.
Thurmond showed his stamina in more sensational ways. At the age of 66 he married a 22-year-old beauty queen who went on to bear him four children. Receiving a female acquaintance at his Senate office a few years back, he briefly confused the lady with her mother — a forgivable error, since at different times he had dated both women. Eventually even feminists started to forgive his flirting and fanny-grabbing. Longevity covers a multitude of sins.