Good ole Strom

Posted: Dec 04, 2001 12:00 AM
Other than the persistent clacking of my boots on the cement, things seemed eerily quiet as I trudged up 2nd Street, turned the corner and then moved around the blockade that surrounds the Capitol building. Overhead, there was a blur of white birds. The quietude, I will later discover, is due to the fact that they are preparing to spray for anthrax. Inside the Capitol, it is just another day - bodies burrowing blindly through the narrow hallways. I join in, weaving, slashing and swooshing until I arrive at Sen. Strom Thurmond's office. Inside, the walls are decorated with civil rights and Civil War memorabilia - an appropriate symbol for the office of the epoch-spanning representative from South Carolina who turns 99 this week. A brief recap: Strom Thurmond's life has been virtually synonymous with Southern politics. He entered politics when he was 31, serving the last 47 years as a senator for his home state of South Carolina where he was born in 1902. Thurmond's political career has spanned seven decades, making him the longest standing public official in our country, in our century ... in any century. He also got me my first job as an intern in his Senate office. I was 16. Strom was a spry 72. We have maintained a fond acquaintance since and every year at about this time, I drop by his office to check to see if he is still alive. If so, I offer a happy birthday greeting. This year, his office staff informed me that he was at the barber shop. It is there, in the basement of the Capitol building, that I discovered that Sen. Thurmond was indeed still alive ... and still opinionated after - what is it now? One hundred and 20 years? "Just 99," Strom asserted, as he reclined in his barber chair. "You call that just?" "Got more hair then you," he cackled. It is true. Even in these advanced years Ole Strom remains sharp enough to supply adequate amounts of chitchat. Throughout our talk, "Don't interrupt me," became one of his favorite refrains. On the topic of America's current war, Thurmond recalled his own days as a World War II soldier. He also expressed some awe - bordering on incredulity - at the way the media instantaneously beams sensitive information about troop movements and tactics out to the public. In the senator's day, things like military tribunals and troop deployment were left out of the papers by reporters who were deeply sensible about winning wars. "Is the change for better or worse?" I asked. "Rights change a bit during times of war," he replied cagily, before switching the topic to the more general changes in his surroundings. He recalled his mother welling up with joy as she prepared to trade in the greenback stamps she had been collecting for a prize. He fondly recalled the quaint atmosphere of his local A&P grocery store. For a moment, there was a sense of ones youth bleeding into nostalgia. Then an interruption. The senator's chief of staff, Duke Short, whispered in his ear. The senator turned to me and said somewhat abruptly that he had a vote between 4:00 and 4:30 p.m., then hobbled away, rather determined. As he merged into the hubbub of those narrow hallways, I was struck by the senator's audacity. Whereas most of us draw comfort, and perhaps even hopefulness from our surroundings, Thurmond actually had the audacity to overflow his epoch. Fueled by relentless energy and a dedication to God, South Carolina and country, he continues to move forward, in stubborn defiance of time. Lucky us.