Strom Thurmond, Carolina Icon, Likely to Win the Appeal of the Oldest Sitting Senator Transcends the Concerns about His Age

Article excerpt

ABOUT 300 TOWNSFOLK had gathered for Strom Thurmond Appreciation Day at Strom Thurmond High School in the senator's home town, just off Strom Thurmond Highway's Exit 5.

After receiving a series of tributes in the school gymnasium, the 93-year-old Republican senator walked stiffly to the podium and began speaking of the many notable Americans produced by Edgefield County, starting with William Barret Travis, the defender of the Alamo. "He's the guy," Thurmond began, "that with 3,000 Russians threatening to attack . . ."

The senator's aides winced as the gaffe echoed through the crowd. One of them, perched on the edge of his seat, seemed eager to snatch the word "Russians" from the air and amend it to "Mexicans" before the sound waves could fill the room. It was exactly the kind of misstep that could reinforce questions about Thurmond's mental agility as he runs for an eighth term, an election that will give "Ol' Strom" a chance to become the Senate's longest-serving member (on May 28, 1997) and its first centenarian (on Dec. 5, 2002). That is one image from Thurmond's 1996 campaign. But another exists and it helps explain why Thurmond, who is already the oldest man ever to serve in the Senate, is favored to win re-election Nov. 5. It features Esther Hunter, an 81-year-old black woman who showed up for a campaign stop at Gene's restaurant in Union this week to thank Thurmond for the condolence letter that he sent when her husband died in 1993. It mattered little that it was a form letter, no different from thousands of others sent to survivors over the years by Thurmond's staff. Nor did it matter that Thurmond was once one of the South's staunchest segregationists. "He sent me this fine letter when my husband died," Hunter said, clutchi ng a wrinkled page. "You can't pay attention to everything you hear. People say, you know, he didn't like black people. But he knows I'm 100 percent black, and he sure did pay me respect. You have to praise the bridge that carries you across." As Thurmond campaigns for history, polls show that the vast majority of South Carolinians believe that it is far past time for him to retire. He is, at this point, largely a vessel of his staff, unwilling to debate his opponent and reduced to reading the most elementary remarks off typewritten cards labeled "Stump Speech." But the polls cannot accurately measure the profound affection felt in this state for Thurmond, a man whose political life began when Bob Dole was 5. A war hero, teacher and football coach, Thurmond served as county superintendent of education, state senator, circuit judge, governor and presidential candidate before beginning his 42-year tenure in the Senate. Throughout his career, with gestures large and small, Thurmond has built a reservoir of goodwill as deep as Lake Hartwell. Pork has been procured. Calls have been made to inquire about Social Security benefits. Before the appreciation day ceremonies began, Thurmond delivered a locker room pep talk to the high school football team, known as the Rebels, and handed out key rings from his office to each player. …


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