'Strong' Thurmond Defines Political Longevity in America

Lawmakers honor South Carolina senator as the longest-serving member of Congress

By now, the stories have become part of the nation's political folklore. He is a nonagenarian who maintains a daily 50-minute exercise regime.

He is the only member of Congress who has earned votes from Civil War veterans. He has a handshake that could crack a black walnut, a reservoir of strength he once called upon to pin a fellow senator to the floor over a quorum dispute.

This week, the mystique and myths surrounding Sen. Strom Thurmond took on Homeric proportions as Congress honored its longest-serving member. It was an event worthy of reflection, if not carbon dating.

Running strong after 41 years and 10 months, the South Carolina senator with the Tang-colored hair has no plans to retire. There is work ahead. He insists he will serve until his term ends in 2002, the year he turns 100.

When asked about retirement last year, Thurmond proclaimed: "I'm not built like that. I've got an engine in me that wants to go."

History and Thurmond have been constant companions for decades, even more so these days as the stolid senator basks in the notoriety accompanying his record.

The Almanac of American Politics calls him "the most enduring figure in American politics today." In an era defined by hard-charging freshmen, Thurmond remains a powerful figure in Washington. He is chairman of both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

Defining endurance

His colleagues are unanimous in their admiration for both his physical and political stamina. Sen. Connie Mack (R) of Florida tells of a joint campaign trip in 1988 when Thurmond was in his mid 80s: The two started at 5:30 in the morning and traversed the state until 10 that night, Senator Thurmond "never missing a beat."

Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana tells of rolling into a Navy base at 4:30 in the afternoon after traveling for hours with Thurmond, who immediately invited the base commander for a jog. The captain begged off, offering up instead a young ensign to accompany the senator.

Groping for a way to characterize Thurmond's durability, Sen. Dan Coats (R) of Indiana resorts to a sports metaphor: "I think that the sacrifice and the commitment and the perseverance and dedication of Senator Thurmond really can only be compared to that of [Baltimore Orioles third baseman] Cal Ripken [Jr.]." It might be more accurate, however, to describe Mr. Ripken as the Strom Thurmond of baseball.

Even before Thurmond's long career in the Senate, he was a state legislator, a circuit judge, South Carolina governor, and presidential candidate on the "Dixiecrat" (Southern Democrat) ticket in 1948.

When Thurmond began his Senate career, racial segregation was a fact of life in the South, and Thurmond was its leading defender. His Dixiecrat presidential campaign was a protest against President Harry Truman's desegregation policies. He holds the record for the Senate's longest-ever speech, a 24-1/2-hour filibuster against a fair-housing bill.

But as the nation changed, Thurmond changed too, showing a chameleon-like ability to respond to the times and his constituency.

After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took effect and blacks in South Carolina began voting in large numbers, Thurmond became the first Southern senator to hire black staff members and support blacks for high office. In 1982, he voted to renew the Voting Rights Act he had so strongly opposed in earlier times, and he supported the Martin Luther King holiday.

Thurmond, who has never abandoned his core conservatism, also led change. In 1964 he became the first leading Southern politician to switch to the Republican Party, thus creating the first crack in the so-called "solid South," and foreshadowing the dramatic shift in the region's politics that resulted in the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 - led by a House Speaker from Georgia and a Senate majority leader from Mississippi.

Getting 'thurmondized'

Many senators speak of Thurmond's "firm grip," which sometimes leaves bruises on their arms after he has greeted them or discussed a coming vote - Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi calls it being "thurmondized." But they also speak of his devotion to his family - and theirs. Aged 69 when his first child was born, he has often missed important Washington events or urged senators to finish their work so he could attend his son's or daughter's ball game or graduation.

Many senators can recall personal advice from Thurmond to exercise and watch what they eat. "The degree to which he cares about all of us here, the affection he has for us and our families shows a side beyond the leadership side that makes him such a special person," says Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan.

And colleagues note in awe his legendary rapport with constituents. During trips to other parts of the country, Thurmond will still make two-dozen calls to South Carolinians who are celebrating an achievement or mourning a loss. He sends congratulations to every high school graduate in the state.

At home, he's as much a fixture as summer's heat and the tobacco harvest. His imprint - and his name - are on dozens of streets, a high school, a medical center, and a lake. Thurmond returns the favor by overseeing one of the best constituent service operations in Washington. A review of his efforts in 1995-96 reveals a senator as consumed by getting a band and military flyover for the Mighty Moo Parade in Cowpens as he is for ensuring money for the next generation of Air Force fighter.

"What people love about Strom Thurmond, what his colleagues love about him, Democrat and Republican, is that he is a man that Oliver Wendell Holmes described, of passion, of action, of conviction," says Sen. Christopher Dodd Jr. (D) of Connecticut, whose father also served in the Senate alongside Thurmond.

Persevering for peaches

Since becoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 1995, Thurmond has never hesitated to throw his weight around. In one instance, Thurmond wrote a letter to then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry beseeching the Pentagon to order more fruit for soldiers, "especially domestically grown peaches."

Thurmond cited health experts on the virtues of peaches as "one way to improve nutrition." The unspoken reason: Thurmond's hometown is in the middle of South Carolina's peach belt.

"Very few people are active and doing things like I do them at my age. They haven't exercised; they haven't paid the price," Thurmond says. "I have an optimistic attitude [that] a lot of people don't. So really, it's not age, it's performance that counts."

THURMOND: SPANNING A CENTURY

* Born Dec. 5, 1902, Edgefield, S.C.

* One year and 12-days-old when the Wright brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk.

* Graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina in 1923.

* In 1942, volunteered for the Army. Won a Purple Heart, landing behind German lines in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

* Prior to becoming a senator, served as a state legislator, a circuit judge, and South Carolina Governor.

* Ran for President in 1948 as a states' rights Dixiecrat.

* Holds record for longest filibuster, speaking for 24 hours, 18 minutes, in 1957.

* Turned Republican in 1964.

* Became first Southern senator to hire a black staff member.

* Married former Miss South Carolina, Nancy Moore, in 1968. First of four children was born three years later.

* As president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency.

* Only current member of Congress who earned votes from Civil War veterans. (He ran for county school superintendent in 1928.)

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