J. Strom Thurmond died on June 27, answering that last great Roll Call in the Sky at the age of 100, shortly after finishing out a half-century in the U.S. Senate. He won his first election before Bill Clinton and Junior Bush were born. He spent the last period of his life in his native place, the Black Belt town of Edgefield, South Carolina. (Can anyone imagine Bob Dole going back to Kansas or the Kennedys to Brookline?)
Aside from the third of the population made up of recently arrived Mexicans and Rust Belt refugees, there is no one in South Carolina who did not know Strom personally. (I met him, through no effort of my own, two weeks after arriving in the state in 1971.) He was known by his Christian name as readily and familiarly as anybody in these parts since Elvis. There is a genuine feeling of loss at his passing, though it has long been anticipated. He outlived several groomed successors.
Thurmond was liked by the people not because he was a “conservative,” although he vaguely symbolized the visceral conservatism of the population. There were few constituents who had not received from him personal assistance in some encounter with the many-headed federal beast.
A graduate of Clemson College back when the all-male students were still uniformed “cadets,” Thurmond began his career in local politics. During World War II, he resigned a judgeship to join the service. (At the same time, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were maneuvering to get out of the service and into office.) At the age of 41, he rode a glider into Normandy on D-Day and returned with numerous decorations. Thurmond belonged to those several generations of Southerners who considered the Armed Forces to be the heart of manhood and patriotism. Like most such, he continued to be a strong supporter of “defense” spending long after the forces had ceased to embody either of those qualities.
Thurmond was elected governor of South Carolina in 1946. He was soon thrust—or thrust himself—onto the national scene. Southerners came back from the war flush with patriotism and barely aware of the fact that they were being set up as the next official enemy of the United States. They soon learned, however, as the Democratic Party began to reject its traditional Southern base. (The Republican Party, always 50 years behind on the leftward trajectory, is presently attempting the same maneuver.)
Out of the postwar “civil-rights” revolution in the Democratic party came the States’ Rights Democratic Party of 1948, with Governor Thurmond as its presidential candidate. He carried four states and over a million votes—more than the liberals’ darling, Henry Wallace—and gathered a small but significant following beyond the Potomac, including Robert Lee Frost and the young Murray Rothbard.
Illustrating Americans’ terminal ignorance of history, the media obits have made much of the point that Thurmond was once a segregationist and an opponent of “civil rights” but had undergone a reformation. It sounds as though segregation were some inexplicable personal shortcoming rather than the law and the overwhelming preference of millions of white Southerners (and of most Northerners in practice, if not in theory). A survivor like Thurmond will naturally adapt to changed circumstances.
From the early 1970’s on, his appointment of black staffers and outreach to black constituents reflected the common experience of the South, especially the inevitable submission to the federal juggernaut and white Southerners’ good manners and basic good will toward black Southerners. Like most of us, Thurmond accepted in good faith the conditions that Northerners had imposed out of abstract righteousness and absentee moralism. (Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois are still the most segregated states.)
In 1954, Thurmond became the only senator in American history to be elected as a write-in candidate. In the 1960’s, he garnered more national attention as a feisty opponent of the fashionable radical legislation of the day. He broke the record for filibusters and challenged his opponents to an arm-wrestling contest. (There were no takers, if I remember correctly.) He got further attention by a timely switch from Democrat to Republican during the Goldwater episode.
The Great Society changed American government forever, making the feds the font of all blessings in nearly every realm of life. Thurmond and other Southerners who wanted to stay in power joined the new regime, which transformed members of Congress from representatives of the people to middlemen for the government’s payoffs to the people. If Northern Republicans and Democrats insisted on voting for vast spending programs, then a rational Southern response was to get a good place at the trough and pipe as many goodies as possible back to the homefolks.
Strom’s patronage machine worked so well that it kept running long after he had slipped into dozing senility. That is not to be despised, considering the cookie-cutter country-club Republicans that are likely to succeed him for the foreseeable future. Nor was it without some positive benefits: Federal judges in these regions are not generally the crazed gauleiters who flourish elsewhere in the country. Strom was one of the few Southerners to use the Republicans more than they used him.
Thurmond, at least according to legend, suffered in high degree from the politician’s common malady of testicular hyperactivity; his reported early exploits make Bill Clinton look like an amateur. At 49, he married a young beauty queen; at 68, a 22-year-old coed. In later years, his affinity for the fairer sex took on a relatively harmless—if slightly comic—courtliness. My most vivid memory of him comes from the Clarence Thomas hearings. When Strom addressed some of the witnesses as “ladies,” he was taken to task by a feminist virago, doubtless from Massachusetts—the last soiled tatters of Western civilization in America versus a triumphant New World Order.