The new politics of the South
Passing of Strom Thurmond, longest serving senator, completes transition to new breed of post-segregationist pols.
WASHINGTON — The late Sen. Strom Thurmond knew veterans of every American war going back to the Civil War. No one ever served longer in the US Senate. His former colleagues say no one ever will.
Yet, the statements in his honor on the floor of the Senate on Friday were unusually restrained by the standards of a body known for effusive tributes to its own. Senators noted his longevity, patriotism, capacity for friendship, and prodigious service to his constituents in South Carolina. What they all avoided was his politics - especially his once-segregationist views on race.
"When he saw that America had changed - and changed for the better - he changed," said Senate majority leader Bill Frist in a carefully worded statement on Friday.
The remarks were, in part, a sign of how a new generation of Southern senators - from Dr. Frist on the GOP side to John Edwards of North Carolina on the Democratic side, increasingly define themselves apart from race.
While Thurmond never publicly retracted his views on race, he did adjust his actions to reflect the power of an expanding black electorate in the south.
In the early 1970s, Thurmond became the first member of a South Carolina delegation of either party to hire a black staffer - a move that sent a powerful signal at that time. And, though he staged a record 24 hour-18 minute filibuster to block the civil rights bill of 1957, he later voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982. He also voted to make Martin Luther King Day a holiday, set up scholarships at historic black colleges, and conspicuously included the African-American community in his work for constituents.
Thurmond biographer Nadine Cohodas writes in her book "Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change" that he tempered his segregationist image, "more by altering his actions than by words."
But in 21st century politics, the words count as well. Ask Mr. Frist's predecessor, Trent Lott. The Mississippi senator was forced to resign as majority leader at the end of the 107th Congress after suggesting at an event honoring Thurmond that the country would have been better off had his 1948 segregationist presidential campaign been successful. While he stayed on in the Senate, and even salvaged a chairmanship, Senator Lott often signals that he feels he was treated unfairly.
"I'm going to write a book about the burdens and unfairness you have to deal with if you're a southern conservative officeholder," he told reporters in unsolicited remarks en route to the Senate floor earlier this month.
Unlike the powerful southern Democrats who kept civil rights legislation at bay for much of the last century, a new generation of Southern senators are defining themselves apart from race.
Racial issues, such as affirmative action, are no longer defined along a north/south axis. And it's given politicians like Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana or Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina a larger frame than race for defining their role in politics.
"Thurmond adjusted in a very covert way, it was not something he bragged about, it just happened," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "John Breaux, in a different generation, has fashioned himself as a moderate and is a centrist broker for the Democrats. [Virginia GOP Sens.] John Warner and George Allen understand that Virginia is a much changed place."
And newcomers like John Edwards represent a "new breed" who came into the Senate without a touch of old-style racial politics, he says.
Still, those who do span an earlier era of southern politics, like Senator Lott, can be drawn back into the definitions of that period if they are not careful, analysts say.
"Southern politicians of a certain age, especially those on the right that spent part of their careers defending segregation, have a special responsibility to prove that, like Caesar's wife, they are above suspicion when it comes to race," says Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report, a newsletter. It helps that African Americans have substantial roles in the leadership of almost all southern legislatures and are mayors in many of the south's largest cities, including some that are still majority white. "Most southern politicians now coming up through the ranks have had more dealings with African-Americans and African-American politicians than people in any other part of the country," he adds.