Hollings vs. Thurmond

Posted: Sep 05, 2001 12:00 AM
Strom Thurmond played an obtrusive role in my life. At age 17, waiting at home in Camden, S.C., to be drafted into the Army, I used to go with senior members to the Sarsfield Club. I didn't drink yet, but those who did partied there, listening to music, dancing a bit, with maybe a three-piece band on Saturday. Bang! STROM THURMOND ORDERS/BOTTLE CLUBS CLOSED. Newly Elected Governor Upholds/State Tradition on Prohibition. A month later, the Sarsfield Club closed down -- they couldn't make it on my Coke-drinking.

Then just months later there was what he did to the Carolina Cup, the great steeplechase event in Camden. Beginning at age 13, I fondled annually the bookie reports, comparing odds on this horse or the other, parceling out my $2 bets with solemn deliberation, a thousand bettors crowding about a corner of the legendary course, spicing up the race and life in general. Bang! THURMOND VOIDS BOOKIES/'There'll Be No Gambling in South Carolina,' Governor Rules.

All that stuff was about the time of Pearl Harbor, or shortly after. A few years later, Gov. Thurmond led a third-party mutiny against President Truman, offering himself as a states'-rights candidate for president. At the inauguration of the victorious Truman, when the celebrities filed by to congratulate the winner, the president declined to accept Thurmond's hand.

Thurmond appeared to be about as lost a cause as causes can get, there being by now no corner of South Carolina where you can't get booze or bet on anything. And the states'-rights movement is pretty much dead, certainly so as a movement touching in any way on civil rights. But Thurmond? Why, he became a Republican, won a Senate seat, and rewon it, with heavy backing from black voters, and kept on doing that right to the current moment, outdistancing the record of any politician in Senate history. He vowed, when last he ran in 1996, to stay on through a full term, intending to retire in January 2003, sometime after his 100th birthday.

And now Fritz Hollings steps in and spoils it all. Senator Hollings is the aseptic Democratic who shares South Carolina with Strom Thurmond, creating one of those quaint paradoxical pairings so many Americans are given to, like voting for Engler and Levin in Michigan, Thompson and Feingold in Wisconsin, Cranston and Reagan in California. So Sen. Hollings can be expected to vote the liberal line, but it isn't complementary behavior, rather fratricidal behavior to say what he did early in the week about Strom Thurmond.

Strom Thurmond is no longer "mentally keen" and stays in the Senate because he "doesn't have any place to go." Senator Hollings seemed to be relishing his interview with The Greenville News. He went on to say that Sen. Thurmond was "alert, he's awake, and they get him to votes and lead him around. ... It's sad because the poor fellow doesn't have any place to go, if you think on it. He doesn't have a home, and someone has said the best nursing home is the U.S. Senate."

The 25th Amendment provides for immobilized presidents, ordaining that if the vice president and a majority of executive department heads declare a president unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the vice president will assume presidential duties. There is no equivalent provision in South Carolina for recalling an incapacitated senator, but if anybody in the legislature in Columbia sits down to consider the formulation of an appropriate act, attention might be given to how to respond to senators who say unpleasant and morbid things about their elderly colleagues. Perhaps it should be unconstitutional to say anything derogatory about anybody over 100, except Bertrand Russell.

Chance had it that many years ago I found myself in Wichita, Kan., at the first of 10 annual meetings of trustees charged to allocate money from a deceased philanthropist who wanted to have a little posthumous effect on the anti-socialist cause. The named trustees included Sen. Barry Goldwater, Sen. John Tower, Edgar Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Frank Lausche.

At the initial meeting, we voted in as chairman, Strom Thurmond. Accepting his appointment, he opened the meeting with a prayer. And at the party that night, he accepted a (single) glass of wine. If I had said to him, "Strom, I'm taking odds that you will live to be 100 years old," he might have said no betting was allowed, but I could have told him we were in Kansas, not South Carolina, and offered the odds. But nobody would have bet, and Strom Thurmond was too much the gentleman to have spoiled Fritz Hollings' act 34 years later.