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Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change.

Strom Thurmond is one of the great ideological losers in post-war American politics. At every essential juncture in the forties, fifties, and sixties, the veteran senator from South Carolina came down hard on the wrong side of history. He fought even the mildest of civil rights measures, employed demagogic rhetoric, and cloaked calls for a white-dominated Southern culture in the code of states' rights. Worse, Thurmond's moral vision appeared so narrow that he professed not to understand how Jim Crow hurt blacks.

Nadine Cohodas, a former reporter for Congressional Quarterly, has written a balanced, fair, comprehensive, and useful account of Thurmond's lengthy public life. She rightly sees Thurmond's political career and life--for Thurmond, the two are indistinguishable--as the struggle of a man of great political talent but little vision to cope with the shifting dynamics of race in the 20th century.

Thurmond was born in 1902, the son of a prosperous lawyer and farmer in the town of Edgefield. His father, John William Thurmond, became a state senator and ally of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, the charismatic, viciously racist South Carolina governor and senator whom six-year-old Strom met and idolized.

In a straightforward narrative style, Cohodas dutifully tracks Thurmond through his student years at Clemson University, his career as a school teacher, and his first campaign, a race for county school superintendent in 1926. Cohodas then moves on to Thurmond's run for the state Senate, his state judgeship, his heroic service in World War II, and his election as governor in 1946.

Thurmond emerged on the national stage in 1948, when Southern Democrats rebelled after President Truman insisted on including civil rights planks in the party's platform. Thurmond didn't lead the Southern revolt at first, but after several state delegations bolted from the party's Philadelphia convention, the South Carolina governor seized the banner of the States' Rights Party and carried it with gusto. The 1948 break was the first in the long series of political shifts that, 20 years later, would produce the solid Republican South after a century of Democratic dominance in the region.

Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign fell flat. He picked up just 3 percent of the nation's popular vote but did carry four states in the old Confederacy. His rhetoric was affecting and fearful, springing from the deep well of South Carolina's historic resistance to national efforts to liberate blacks. "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation," Thurmond thundered, over and over again.

After the failed presidential bid, Thurmond won a 1954 write-in election to the U.S. Senate seat he's held ever since. Throughout the fifties and sixties, Thurmond fought civil rights bills with a venom and singularity of purpose unmatched by any other senator. He was utterly unmoved by the eloquent pleas of Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, and his rhetoric and militant defense of segregation remained untempered by the changes afoot. Thurmond labeled Brown v. Board of Education "the outstanding judicial blunder of all time;" and in 1962, when a court ordered Clemson to admit Harvey Gantt as its first black student, the senator explicitly opposed it. In 1965, when the Senate overwhelmingly passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, Thurmond declared, "This is a tragic day for America."

In 1964, repulsed by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' civil rights advocacy, Thurmond bolted from the Democratic party again and committed what was, at the time, a heretical act for a Southerner: He became a Republican. In a way, Thurmond became the first Reagan Democrat, and, Cohodas argues, helped pave the way for future Republican candidates to win in the South.

Cohodas doggedly traces the highlights and low lights of Thurmond's career, and skillfully laces the narrative with vignettes and details from the history of South Carolina, the South, and the civil fights movement.

Thurmond, no matter what you think of his politics, has had a hell of a fide. His 38-year career is one of the longest in the history of the Senate. (And in 1968, at the tender age of 66, he married a beauty queen more than 40 years his junior.) But longevity without purpose is meaningless. Thurmond won't be remembered for the legislation he passed, but for the legislation that passed over his frenetic objections. In fact, Thurmond still holds the record for the longest filibuster in Senate history. It was no Mr. Smith-like rage against corruption; rather, he took up an entire day of the Senate's time in 1957 fulminating against a mild civil fights bill.

Despite his undeniable public record, Thurmond says with a straight face, "Well, honestly in my heart, I've never been a racist." Occasionally, Cohodas seems too willing to take such quotations at face value. She doesn't dig deeply enough past the politician to expose the man's psyche. We know that Strom Thurmond now has a black secretary and that some blacks in South Carolina vote for him. That's hardly a reconciliation. How has the Senator worked out the nettlesome question of race in his own life, in his own mind and heart? How has he reconciled his past actions and statements with the history that has unfolded before his eyes?

Cohodas tightly takes pains to place Thurmond in his proper context. He was but one of a gaggle of Southern politicians who defended segregation to its death. But there were Southerners brave enough to see the future and not shrink from it: Lyndon Johnson, Albert Gore Sr., and Ernest Hollings come immediately to mind. Especially instructive is Cohodas's comparison of Thurmond with Waties Waring, an older South Carolinian cut from the same genetic cloth as Thurmond. As a federal judge in South Carolina, Waring made a series of revolutionary rulings in the forties that helped put Jim Crow to rout.

Where men like Waring looked forward, Thurmond looked backwards, always backwards. He came into the political world with all the baggage of a segregationist South and clung to it as long as he could.
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Author:Gross, Daniel
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Previous Article:Tales Out of School.
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