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Southern Discomfort : Many South Carolina voters secretly wish that their very senior senator, 93, would call it quits. But as long as Strom Thurmond insists on running, they'll back him.

May 06, 1996|LLOYD GROVE | THE WASHINGTON POST

"Ken-ah cayenne yo baygich own-uh plaaayyyn?"

To the untrained ear, the old man seemed to be muttering in an alien tongue. He thrust a liver-spotted hand at a white-haired, wrinkled woman (which is to say, a lady some 20 years his junior), and she gave a little start.

But 93-year-old Strom Thurmond, South Carolina's very senior United States senator, wasn't speaking geriatric glossolalia. Seated in the airport lounge in Charlotte, his American flag lapel pin glinting from his suit jacket, he was talking in a deep Dixie drawl, impervious to the homogenizing, flattening force of the mass media's global village. After all, television didn't even enter American life until Thurmond was middle-aged.

More to the point, he was being a Southern gentleman.

"Can I carry any of your baggage on the plane?" he asked the white-haired lady.

"I'm all right," she replied with a worried look.

Undaunted, the senator rotated slowly to his right, toward a woman in her 30s. "How about you?" he demanded. "Can I carry any of your baggage on the plane?"

"No, thank you, senator," she replied with a smile, obviously recognizing this political icon of the Old South.

That February afternoon, Thurmond was in transit from Washington, where he's been a senator for the past 41 years, to Greenville, S.C., where a stupendous rally was being staged in honor of his reelection campaign for an eighth term in office.

He's running again despite his avowed support for term limits, and despite the widespread belief of voters in South Carolina, as well as of colleagues and staffers in Washington, that he's not up to his job as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Until recently, the post was pivotal in the formulation of defense and national security policy. Lately it's a position of reduced power and influence.

But Thurmond, who is blamed by many for the committee's straitened circumstances, won't hear of stepping aside.

"Everything with the press is age, age, age!" he scolded me after I raised the issue in the airport lounge. I had stumbled upon him sitting alone, without the platoon of staff that would be deployed for a formal interview.

"It's not so much that I love the job. I love helping people," the senator explained. "What job could you hold, other than being president, where you can do more for people? Who would have more interest in the people than me? Who would help them more? Who knows the ropes better?"

Years ago, Thurmond established for his Senate office a strict regimen of condolence calling.

"In Aiken County, where I live, and in Edgefield, where I was born, we try to make it a point to call their families when there's a death," Thurmond explains. "We try to drop them a letter in those two counties, and with other friends elsewhere, because"--and here he bursts out laughing--"I have a lot of friends that die."

He occupies his own niche in the Guinness Book nether world between history's Oldest Living Senator--a milestone he passed on March 8, when he bested the late Theodore Green of Rhode Island--and history's Longest-Serving. Thurmond must win reelection to break the 42-year-plus record of Arizona's Carl Hayden, whose last campaign, the year before his death in 1969, consisted of summoning a home-state newspaper reporter to his hospital room and lifting his hand off the bedsheet.

Thurmond, of course, is a far livelier specimen. A good thing, too: As the Senate's president pro tempore--No. 1 in seniority--he is constitutionally designated to be sworn in as president of the United States should President Clinton, Vice President Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich all be indisposed.

*

Strom Thurmond entered public service 71 years ago as a member of the Edgefield County Board of Education and fashioned a career out of defending the old order of racial separation. As governor he bolted the 1948 Democratic convention over the issue of segregation to run against President Truman on the Dixiecrat ticket, and as senator he mined the politics of polarization until the rise of black voters in the past two decades convinced him that the mother lode had been tapped out.

In his heyday, Thurmond vehemently opposed the landmark civil rights legislation of the '50s and '60s, drafted the notorious "Southern Manifesto" calling for mass resistance to desegregation rulings, and abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP in 1964 because it had become, among other evils, "the party of minority groups."

But since the '70s, he has energetically revised his personal history, once insisting to a reporter, "I never was a segregationist." Never mind that when he fought the civil rights bill of 1957, he spoke on the Senate floor for a continuous 24 hours 18 minutes--still the all-time record for a filibuster.

In recent years, during which he has hired black staffers and helped appoint black federal judges, Thurmond has devoted himself to bringing home the bacon.

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