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Gold Watch? Not for Strom Thurmond, Not Yet

May 23, 1997|HEATHER KNIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As he answered questions Thursday about the record he is about to set as the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, it was not surprising that 94-year-old Strom Thurmond had difficulty making out one word: retirement.

Asked at a Capitol Hill news conference what he planned to do after retirement, the South Carolina Republican said he couldn't hear part of the question. That prompted an onlooker to interject: "He doesn't understand the word!"

Thurmond shrugged his shoulders, joining in the laughter that greeted the remark. Then he stated the obvious: "I expect it will be a good while before I retire."

Thurmond--chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and, as Senate president pro tempore, third in line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Al Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich--on Sunday will break the Senate service record: 41 years and 10 months, set by the late Carl Hayden of Arizona.

It is a record Thurmond expects to keep adding to. He won his latest reelection last November, meaning his current term doesn't expire until just after he turns 100. He has, however, pledged to call it quits at that point.

Thurmond--who's been a Democrat, Dixiecrat, Republican, governor, 1948 presidential candidate, arch-segregationist and the first Southern senator to hire black staffers during his political career--attributed his longevity to good genes, diet, exercise and an "optimistic attitude toward life."

Ironically, he reiterated his support for term limits--perhaps wanting to ensure his record goes unbroken. "It might be just as well for people to have a change in their congressman," Thurmond said.

Reflecting on changes in Congress he has seen over the years, Thurmond noted that lawmakers don't get as much time off as they used to and lamented that fact.

Reminded that women increasingly are part of what was once a virtually all-male bastion, Thurmond expressed strong support for the trend.

"When you bring in women, that's always for the better," he said. "They're smart, and we like to look at them."

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