From the March 1999 American Spectator: Florence King’s review of Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson (Longstreet, 359 pages).
IN HIS 1969 BOOK, Gothic Politics in the Deep South, Robert Sherrill noted that Strom Thurmond lives in a world of metaphysical absolutes: “It is a world of one Eden, one Hell, one Heaven, one Right, one Wrong, one Strom.”
South Carolina’s 96-year-old senior Senator is proof of the biblical injunction that the last shall be the first. No matter which way you slice him — powerbroker of both major political parties as well as one of his own, the Lancelot of Southern chivalry who addressed abortion advocates as “lovely ladies,” or the teetotaling lecher whose exploits make Bill Clinton look like a celibate — Ol’ Strom is a law unto himself.
The same could be said of his birthplace. Edgefield is the county seat of a region that stood out even in the fiery, class-conscious South Carolina of Strom’s youth. Charleston had snobbish aristocrats, the “Upcountry” had democratic aristocrats, and Edgefield had “nice people, but they’ll shoot you,” as one observer put it.
The place had a long, proud history of violence based on metaphysical absolutes. It was Edgefield’s congressman, Preston Brooks, who in 1856 beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane, nearly killing him. Another fractious native son was Sen. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, so called for threatening to stick a pitchfork in Grover Cleveland’s ribs, who told the Senate in 1902, the year of Strom’s birth: “When the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution.”
Strom’s father, who was Tillman’s personal lawyer and campaign manager, missed out on a political career of his own because, as Strom explains, “One time he had to kill a man.” It happened in 1897 when a drunken political enemy confronted him on the street and called him a “low, dirty scoundrel.” In reply, young Will Thurmond pulled out a pistol and shot him through the heart. At his trial, which was attended by his fiancée Gertrude Strom, he pleaded self-defense and was acquitted by twelve white male Edgefieldians who did not doubt that self-defense included defending one’s honor. Some years later, when Will Thurmond ran for Congress and lost badly (though carrying Edgefield), he used the occasion to instruct his eldest son. “Never kill anybody,” he told Strom. “It will hurt you all your life.”
The youthful Strom channeled his aggressions into vigorous calisthenics, which he still practices, daredevil motorcycling, and an obsession with control that forged lifelong traits of neatness, efficiency, and punctuality. As a child he liked to stack his family’s canned goods by size and became upset if he could not brush his teeth immediately after eating. Today his Senate office runs like a precision instrument, unsurpassed for prompt constituent service; no phone is allowed to ring more than twice and there is a 24-hour turnaround on all mail. He clocks his staff, putting them on a late list if they do not arrive by 9 a.m. sharp — and he still carries a toothbrush in his pocket.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM CLEMSON when it was still a military college, he briefly taught school, served as county superintendent of schools, then read law with his father and went into practice with him. Elected to the state senate in 1932, the 30-year-old Strom was a handsome, dimpled bachelor with washboard abs and a “shady reputation” among the young ladies in the Junior League, who had heard about his bevy of “big-busted girlfriends,” not in the Junior League and whose company he seemed to prefer.
The shady reputation entered the realm of galactic legend in 1940 when the still-unmarried Strom, by now a circuit court judge, was romantically linked with Sue Logue, the only woman ever sent to the electric chair in South Carolina.
The Logue murder case began when Davis Timmerman’s mule kicked J.W. Logue’s calf to death. Angry over his failure to get restitution for the calf, Logue confronted Timmerman in the latter’s general store. Grabbing a new axe from the shelf, Logue swung it at the merchant with intent to bisect, but Timmerman ducked in time, grabbed his gun, and shot Logue through the head.
After Timmerman’s acquittal on self-defense, the Widow Logue persuaded her sharecropper to kill him. But when he shot one of Timmerman’s hired hands by mistake, she and her brother-in-law, George Logue, decided to hire an assassin. Summoning their nephew, Joe Frank, a Spartanburg policeman, they gave him $500 and asked him to find somebody.
Joe Frank offered the job to Clarence Bagwell, Spartanburg’s town drunk, and drove him to Timmerman’s store. Bagwell entered and fired five shots into Timmerman, after which Joe Frank drove him home. The hapless pair were soon caught and Joe Frank confessed that Sue and George Logue had put him up to it. The sheriff and his deputy went to arrest them, but as they approached the house the Logues opened fire, killing the sheriff and fatally wounding the deputy, who managed to kill the Logues’ sharecropper before dying.
Ol’ Strom heard about the stand-off as he was leaving church and rushed to the Logue place, striding fearlessly onto the porch and calling out to the Logues to surrender. A voice from within replied, “Don’t come in, Strom, or we’ll have to kill you,” but he ignored it, talked his way inside, and persuaded Sue Logue to give herself up.
Sue’s uncharacteristic submissiveness lent credence to longstanding rumors that Strom already had had his way with her. As school superintendent he had given her a teaching job despite the rule that married women could not be hired, and it was said that they were caught in flagrante in his office. Moreover, she was reputed to possess an unusual “vaginal muscular dexterity,” as the authors delicately phrase it. Add that to her go-for-broke nervous system and you have a woman that Ol’ Strom was not likely to overlook.
The Logues and their hired gun were sentenced to the electric chair. They say Strom accompanied Sue when she was taken from the women’s prison to the state pen, and according to the driver, the two of them were in the back seat “a-huggin’ and a-kissin’ the whole way.”
The case that began with a stomped calf ended with nine people dead and Strom Thurmond enshrined in good ol’ boy hearts as the only man to make love to a woman while she was being transferred to Death Row.
WHEN AMERICA ENTERED WORLD WAR II the 39-year-old judge announced he would “rather be airborne than chairborne” and pulled political strings to get assigned to combat duty. He got his wish when he took part in the D-Day invasion and landed behind the German lines in a towed glider that broke up on contact. He sustained several deep cuts and a sprained knee but refused hospitalization and rejoined his unit under fire. He captured four Germans, saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, rose to the rank of colonel, and won the Bronze Star, the Belgian Order of the Crown, and the Croix de Guerre.
Though he courted danger recklessly, he led an eerily charmed wartime life. Once he was standing beside an officer whose head was blown off; another time, in a French village, he decided for no reason to cross the street moments before a shell landed where he had just been walking. Similar miracles of positioning would mark his political career, which began in 1946 when he ran successfully for governor of South Carolina as a New Deal liberal.
He proved to be such a progressive governor that the Realtors Association called him a Communist when he came out for rent control. He also favored a state minimum wage, an end to the poll tax, workmen’s compensation, and better Negro schools, but it was his stand against lynching that won him national attention.
South Carolina had never put night riders on trial, but he insisted on doing just that in his first year in office, with solid support from what he called “good white people.” As expected, all 28 defendants were acquitted by a largely redneck jury, but, said the New York Times, “A precedent has been set. Members of lynching mobs may now know that they do not bask in universal approval.” It was an accurate prediction: No further lynchings occurred in South Carolina.
A year later Strom Thurmond was the Dixiecrat candidate for president, preaching states’ rights and vowing, “There’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation.” What happened? Biographers Bass and Thompson, both South Carolinians, believe he went on automatic pilot; “he began responding from an inner core that had absorbed through osmosis the ethics of the historic crucible of Edgefield, of honor and fighting spirit in defending the white South against those who aroused the region’s deep feelings of grievance.”
Strom, who is not introspective, expressed the same thoughts in objective terms: “Whenever a great section of this country is regarded as so politically impotent that one major party insults it because it is ‘in the bag’ and the other party scorns it because there is no chance for victory, then the time has arrived for corrective and concerted action.”
What angered him was Harry Truman’s decision to ignore the South and push for civil rights legislation to win the urban black vote and lure liberals away from the left-wing Henry Wallace, who was also running for president in 1948. To this day he denies that he was motivated by racism, insisting, “It was a battle of federal power versus state power,” but since segregation was the only state right in dispute at the time, the authors contend that his stance was racist by default.
Whatever may have lurked in the gnarled confines of his Edgefield subconscious, by running as a third-party candidate and carrying four Southern states “he broke loose the psychological moorings that tied the Deep South to the Democratic Party.”
He was finally married at age 44 to 22-year-old Jean Crouch. Returning to private law practice, he defended a woman who shot her husband three times in the chest and three times in the back, getting her off with Edgefield’s favorite plea of self-defense. Itching to get back into politics, he got his chance in 1954 when the Democratic nominee for U.S. senator suddenly died three days before the legal deadline for certifying a candidate. Rather than hold a new primary, the State Democratic Committee hand-picked a replacement, but with no Republican in the race the Democrat was bound to win, which meant that the new Senator had been chosen, in effect, by an oligarchy.
In the ensuing political firestorm, Ol’ Strom sprang to the defense of the “people’s right” to pick their own man and announced his write-in candidacy. The former Dixiecrat had broad appeal thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision on school integration a few months earlier, but the immediate problem was a clerical one: How to prepare a state full of semi-literate voters for the first write-in national election in its history?
The Charleston News & Courier obligingly filled its front page with a picture of a giant ballot containing Strom’s name inscribed by hand. In case anybody still didn’t get it, former Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes had thousands of pencils imprinted with Strom’s name distributed to polling places to forestall possible legal challenges due to misspellings. Even so, some ballots were marked “Storm Thermun” and “Strim Thorman,” but there was no point in challenging them because Ol’ Strom won by 60,000 votes, becoming the only politician in American history elected to national office by write-in.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO DECIDE which incident in Strom Thurmond’s life constitutes his finest hour, but this affectionate, unflinching biography is the place to find them all. Is it his 1957 filibuster against a civil rights bill, when he dehydrated himself with steam baths and spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes — a record that still stands — as an aide waited in the cloakroom with a bucket so that he could relieve himself while keeping one foot in the Senate chamber? (He didn’t need to.)
Is it his 1964 announcement that he was switching parties, when his tagline at the bottom of the TV screen changed in mid-speech from “(D-SC)” to “(R-SC)” in a manner reminiscent of the time he crossed the street in the French village just before the shell landed?
Or is it his unabashed answer when asked if he regrets his Dixiecrat candidacy? “I don’t have anything to apologize for. I don’t have any regrets…. The States’ Rights Party addressed a legitimate issue in 1948 America — whether our states should surrender power to the federal government.”
In our present era of maudlin contrition and non-stop breastbeating, the last may be the first.