Strom turns 100, retires

Posted: Dec 03, 2002 12:00 AM
"Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think." - the great physicist, Niels Bohr "I am history." The declaration belongs to Napoleon. But it could be aptly applied to Sen. Strom Thurmond, the 99-year-old Republican from South Carolina who is the oldest and longest serving senator in this nation's history - perhaps in any nation's history. On Dec. 5, the senator will turn 100. He will retire 28 days later following the completion of his eighth term, raising questions of his political significance, as well as just how precisely he came to be so popular. Inconsistent as an ideologue (he has run for public office alternately as a Dixiecrat, a segregationalist, Democrat and Republican), somewhat less than crucial as a legislator (at least for the past 40 years), he ascended as a demagogue. His ability to work a crowd is the stuff of legend in South Carolina. Back in the '50s and '60s, Strom worked out regularly and almost never drank. Walking across a stage, he exuded masculine dominance. His baritone voice rang through the church, whipping his electorate into a fervor. The faithful among the populace found it dazzling. The various messages he touted didn't matter nearly so much as the medium. And Thurmond used that medium to ignite their souls. He declared to the voters of South Carolina that their culture is his culture. Thurmond brought local electioneering to its nadir. He used to stump year round at every county fair, ubiquitous corn dog in hand. His office helps people with their taxes. High school graduates receive a personalized message of congratulation from him. Interning at his senate office is a right of passage for South Carolina's ambitious young (I served as an intern there in 1979). According to a 1996 opinion poll requested by Thurmond's Democratic opponent that year, Elliot Close, 68 percent of the South Carolina voting populace said that they had met Thurmond face to face. There is no substitute for this sort of personal contact with the electorate. People are much more likely to go to the polls if they have seen the candidate up close. Particularly in rural settings, they like that kind of contact. Then there's the almost preternatural vigor. The quality leaps out and immediately focuses your attention on him. Every South Carolina resident has a story about Strom's vigor. My favorite occurred a few years ago, when I visited the senator in the hospital. Seeing the senator lying limp in his bed, I recall thinking for the first time that he no longer seemed immortal. Then, the quintessential moment occurred: Strom simply rolled out of bed and declared, "I'm famished." He then hobbled into the bathroom and changed into a suit. The nurse rubbed her eyes. There he stood. It seemed that the senator was ready to return to 218 Russell, his Senate office building. Despite a nurse's desperate pleading, he refused to use a cane. On this point, the senator was very firm. I cautioned him to be careful. This caused the Thurmond to chortle. "I'm going to outlive you," he said. I think he meant it. I suspect it was that vigor that has been the better part of his success over the years. It was that vigor that fueled his run for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat (He won 39 electoral votes and carried four states). That vigor was present when, at age 44, he volunteered for the 82nd Airborne Division and then stormed the beaches at Normandy. Shortly after his return, Thurmond promptly set about becoming the only candidate ever elected to the U.S. Senate by a write-in vote. It was a triumph of vigor when Thurmond delivered the longest filibuster in Senate history (24 hours, 18 minutes). That same vigor, as the story goes, has provoked him to grope more than a few of his female colleagues in the Senate. To the residents of South Carolina, Strom's vigor is a good thing. Despite a small technological boom over the past five years, the Carolinas remain solidly rural and conservative. They also boast the fifth largest population of "sixty-somethings." These demographic patterns are reflected back in their choice of elected officials. South Carolina junior senator Fritz Hollings is 80 years old. Jesse Helms is 82. And though North Carolina's voting populace does not always agree with Helms extremist streak, they do admire the fact that he sticks to a set of core beliefs. This implies consistency. As does Thurmond's sheer ability to persist all these years. This consistency has endeared him to the populace. Or, as media consultant Kevin Geddings observed in a 2001 article in the New York Times, ".fellow Carolinians have come to regard Thurmond as a link with fading traditions and even as a biblical figure. ''They say, 'The Lord must have saw fit for him to live so long.' It's mystical, mythical.'' I always thought it was appropriate that the walls of Thurmond's Senate office are lined with pictures of the senator with every president since his first term. One undeniable portrait after another attested to a single fact: this man has outrun - and usually outlived - -every political adversary he has ever come up against. Its Strom's kinship with history, his ability to stubbornly plow through time, that is at the root of our affection for him. Born 100 years ago this December, he has long since overflowed his epoch and enlivened ours. At the very least, that makes Napoleon's famed declaration seem an appropriate judgment. As does this: Happy Birthday, Strom.