Sen. Strom Thurmond is beloved. Sen. Jesse Helms is feared.
For a combined 78 years, the two have dominated Southern politics. Now they are retiring, provoking analysis of their individual legacies and raising questions about the future of the conservative movement.
Sen. Thurmond was the uber politician, a pop cultural phenomenon who never missed an opportunity to ride the handy wave of public sentiment. When large pluralities of the South Carolina voting populace wished to keep blacks out of their public facilities, Thurmond denounced desegregation with the fist shaking fury of William Jennings Bryan. His 24-hour filibuster on a 1957 civil rights bill still ranks as the longest speech on the Senate floor.
However, when opposition to segregation ebbed, Thurmond abandoned his separatists' rhetoric and began love bombing his black constituents. In 1983, he voted to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. And in 1987, I watched him single-handedly save the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission.
The latter occurred after I received a phone call from Coretta Scott King. Her voice quivered with anger as she explained that the government was considering de-funding the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, which helped preserve her husband's legacy. I arranged a conference call with Sen. Thurmond, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. King pleaded her case. Sen. Thurmond listened patiently. When she finished, he simply replied, "I'll call you back in 45 minutes."
An hour later funding for the commission had been doubled.
Later that month, Sen. Thurmond, Coretta Scott King and myself strolled over to President George Bush's inauguration. During the ensuing festivities, King sat next to Thurmond. The image summed up an enduring fact of Thurmond's career - the senator, who turns 100 in December, never seemed to have outlived his era.
Whereas Thurmond outdistanced and outsmarted every political adversary he came across during his historic run as senator, Sen. Helms simply lowered his head like a battering ram and charged forward. A snarling and supremely obstinate man, Helms earned the nickname "senator No," for his unrelenting opposition to gay rights, the National Endowment for the Arts, AIDS funding and communism.
Known more for making his enemies lose, than for his own legislative wins, Helms abandoned any vestiges of senatorial propriety and used his position to bully the opposition and block nominations. He was also instrumental in rallying voters around Ronald Reagan and in pushing moral and family values into the political mainstream.
Along the way, he endeared himself to Southern voters as a straight shooter who never gave an inch on his beliefs. Or, as Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott put it: "(Helms has been the) conscience" of Republicans. "He stood tall for the things that have made America great." Presumably, Lott was referring to Sen. Helm's unrelenting support of moral values, not his unrelenting support of racial segregation.
Though they cleared different paths, Sen. Thurmond and Sen. Helms both ascended in the popular conscience as symbols of Southern politics. Each was instrumental in wresting control of the South from Democrats. And each was instrumental in embodying the message of social conservatism that animated the Republican Party with meaning for the better part of the past half-century.
Their impending departures raises serious questions about the future direction of the Republican Party, and the place these values will hold in American politics. It is indeed telling that President Bush has said little with regard to their retirement. Perhaps this is the clearest sign that the Republican Party continues to move away from moral and social conservatism of its past, and ever closer to the soft, meaningless center of its future.