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

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 1981



McLean, Va.

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.

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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."

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."