Nancy Moore Thurmond: separating private life and 'public duty'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

They're a dutiful lot, political wives --beautifully dressed, soft-spoken, good at chit-chat and remembering names. Like stewardesses and beauty queens, they're noncontroversial, poised in the spotlight, untiring.

On marathon campaign trails and at ceaseless ladies' luncheons, they provide pretty support to their vocal mates. At home, they often become single parents to their absent husbands' offspring, working to bring some semblance of normalcy to America's "royal children."

It's a life Nancy Moore Thurmond walked into with her eyes open a dozen years ago. Then, as a first-year law student, she weighed the love she had for a US senator 44 years her senior against the responsibilities of public life and the possibility of her being "a political liability to him."

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Love won out, and she married Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina amid a media flak and Washington snickers that she says she weathered with the blitheness of someone deeply in love.

"It really wasn't that difficult," she claims. "I can remember the warmth of the Senate wives -- I never felt rejected, or odd, or different. I laugh about it now and say that Strom and I are the 'odd couple' of the Senate, but to be perfectly honest with you, everyone was very kind to both of us."

Part of the kindness came as a reaction to the young bride herself -- a gracious woman with polished manners and a natural smile. Nancy Thurmond is a sorority type without the snobbishness, the kind of woman who wears stockings and earrings at home in the middle of the day without looking pretentious.

But part of her immediate acceptance into Washington society came from the zeal with which she pitched in. With a poise she perfected during an earlier year as "Miss South Carolina," Mrs. Thurmond charmed and chatted her way through the ubiquitous charitable causes, faithfully attended the weekly Senate Wives Red Cross meeting, and impressed the Washington cynics with her sincerity, her surprising maturity, and her intelligence.

"She's a brilliant girl," declares longtime friend Claire Schweiker, wife of the secretary of health and human resources. "But I worry that she tends to overcommit herself. I tell you this -- if there's any worthwhile cause going on around here, chances are Nancy's got her name on it. And not just as a figurehead --she's a manager!"

Two years after the wedding, her management skills took a new direction with the arrival of the Thurmonds' first child, Nancy Moore.

Three more children followed in less than four years, and Mrs. Thurmond began the "herculean" task of learning to divide between her private life and her "public duty." Angling the dividing line toward the side of her children, she declares: "I feel we owe a happy, normal upbringing to the children we are blessed with."

Sometimes the private and public sides simply interwine, as they did three years ago during the senator's reelection campaign. Then the Thurmond family spent "10 weeks covering 10,000 miles of South Carolina in a camper -- I'm surprised I lived to talk about it!" she says with a broad smile. She insisted on stopping at libraries, parks, and children's programs "so these youngsters wouldn't get bored."

But there are challenges and pressures in public life that hit her children with special impact. One of those was the recent assassination attempt on the President, which Mrs. Thurmond describes as "an unsettling event for our children, as it was for the entire nation."

In fact, two weeks later, "after Strom got back from Germany -- he went to inspect the NATO forces and military installations --Paul said the first thing he was going to do when he saw his Daddy was to check and make sure he hadn't gotten shot."

Less disturbing but perhaps more insidious pressures stem simply from the fact of the children's public life. "When we go out," says their mother, "the public expects a lot of you, and of your children.m I hope that we have allowed our children to be children. I often say that we need to give our children back their playground -- we expect them to be little adults, when they are just kids."

The playground certainly reigns at home --in McLean, Va., with an American flag draped in front next to a handcrafted tire swing. The home is a refuge reserved for family -- official entertaining takes place downtown, and no reporter has roamed the roost in a half-dozen year.

Inside, the Thurmonds' living room contains antique furniture, senatorial memorabilia, a child's overstuffed rocking chair, a piano bedecked with Reagan campaign music --lars gathered by their youngest child, five-year-old Paul Reynolds.

Paul, an outgoing youngster with a Huck Finn smile, endures the interview and picture-taking, and helps fill in the details of the Thurmond household. Mrs. Thurmond describes the daily chores her children perform: "They make their beds, they set the table and," turning toward her youngest, "what do you do, Paul?"

"Take out the trash," he says with a child's sigh.

Mrs. Thurmond tries to be home when her children are there, both to enforce the chores and orchestrate the string of activities her brood participates in. A gregarious bunch, they are soccer and baseball players, gymnasts and horseback riders, ballet and music lovers, with a wide range of friends and aspirations. In fact, the eldest aspired to be a beauty queen, until she was told that her mother once had that role. "You mean," she said in astonishment, "plain old Mom?!"m

"Plain old Mom" is an executive version of the role, a woman who read so widely and thought so deeply about the many-faceted job of motherhood that she wrote a book on the subject before her oldest child was eight.

Based on weekly columns she contributed to 30 South Carolina papers while her children were babies ("I wrote during their naps --and then they stopped taking naps!"), "Mother's Medicine" is a weighty tome. Its 300-plus pages, soon to be bound in paperback, give nononsense instructions on the infant years and hints into Mrs. Thurmond's managerial prowess with preschoolers ("A project a day is a great way to keep misbehavior and boredom away." "Try to celebrate something every week or so.").

As a full-time role, motherhood and homemaking are coming back into fashion," she believes. "We are going to see a resurgence of homemaking as an honored profession," she asserts, "even though more and more women are having to work outside the home as an economic necessity."

The reason is children: "You have to give kids the time -- the most precious thing you can give to your children is time,m not money, not material possessions. To give them the moral upbringing and to guide them in developing character, you have to be around -- you can't do it in absentia.

"It's a career in itself," she says, spotting her other children and their friends coming up the walk, and rising with obvious joy to greet them. "In fact , sometimes it's more like four or five careers."

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