- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2003

Strom Thurmond, the oldest and longest-serving senator in history, died last night at age 100.

Mr. Thurmond died at 9:45 p.m., his son Strom Thurmond Jr. said. He had been living in a newly renovated wing of a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield, S.C., since retiring after 48 years in the Senate earlier this year.

“Surrounded by family, my father was resting comfortably, without pain, and in total peace,” the younger Mr. Thurmond said in a statement released by the hospital.

The Senate, which was working on an overhaul of Medicare when it received news of Mr. Thurmond’s death, stopped work for a moment of silence and for several tributes to a man who fought as a World War II paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and ran for president as a “Dixiecrat” in 1948.

“A giant oak in the forest of public service has fallen,” said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, who served as junior senator with Mr. Thurmond for 36 years.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Mr. Thurmond’s 100-year life was “a life really unmatched in public service.”

“He was in many respects, a legend,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. “He was a governor, a presidential candidate, a soldier, a father, a citizen.”

Mr. Thurmond relished a reputation as an old-timer from the last bastion of courtly Southern gentlemen, an antique in the contemporary world. He lived through 18 presidencies and witnessed great inventions from the airplane and the television to the personal computer and the Internet.

His style, marked by a thick drawl comprehensible only to the trained or native ear, largely withstood the old order’s changing during his 48 years in the Senate, where he rose to prominence during the 1950s fighting efforts to repeal the Jim Crow laws that segregated the South.

But his image as a staunch segregationist Dixiecrat outlasted his views on race relations that evolved over time, taming the kind of convictions he held in 1957 when he waged a record 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster over the Civil Rights Act, an accomplishment, nonetheless, he heralded for decades.

Mr. Thurmond was succeeded in the Senate by Republican Lindsey Graham, who last night praised the man for “a rich life” and because he “changed with the times.”

“He was the go-to guy. If you had a problem with your family or your business … get on the phone and call Sen. Thurmond. You would get a call back and he would go to bat for you,” Mr. Graham said last night.

In 1971, he became the first Southern senator to hire a black staff member. He later supported legislation making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. In a March 1996 interview with the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, the senator said of integration: “I think it’s for the better.”

In 1995, he was given an award by the Greater Washington Urban League during a dinner ceremony entitled “Black and White and Great Together: The Unity Continues.”

But Mr. Thurmond always defended his previous opposition to civil rights, saying he simply followed the law in his home state of South Carolina and the rest of the segregated South.

His long tenure made him both the oldest man ever to serve in the Senate and its longest-serving member. He relinquished his coveted chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1999, but insisted on staying in the Senate until his term ended in 2002.

“As long as I am of sound mind and body, I will continue to work hard to serve my fellow South Carolinians and to provide for the governing of the nation,” he said in 1997.

Aides to other senators who serve on the committee expressed relief at Mr. Thurmond’s decision, even as they spoke fondly of the South Carolina senator — who won 39 electoral votes when he ran for president as a States’ Rights Democrat in 1948 — as a “grandfatherly” and “gentlemanly” figure.

Several senators who felt the aging senator was no longer up to the job tried to oust him from his chairmanship of the panel in 1995, but Mr. Thurmond, who prided himself on his agility and strength beyond his years, responded swiftly and forcefully, averting the coup attempt and holding on firmly to his gavel.

No one who ever met the senator could forget the iron grip he had for a handshake. A World War II veteran who stormed Normandy on June 6, 1944, he was known perhaps as much for his legislative achievements over the course of his colorful public career as for his personal physical accomplishments.

After his first wife died, Mr. Thurmond remarried in 1968 at age 66, this time to a 22-year-old former Miss South Carolina. They had four children together, the last of whom the senator fathered in his 70s. The couple separated in 1991.

Much of the senator’s later career was shaped by personal tragedy. In 1993, his 22-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, prompting the grief-stricken father to join the national organ-donation campaign. Just two weeks before his daughter’s death, he had introduced legislation to require warnings on alcohol advertisements.

He also was known as a notorious, not-so-distant admirer of women. In 1994, he was accused of trying to grab Washington Sen. Patty Murray in an elevator. And he liked showing off his muscles as well. On one occasion in the 1980s, he was seen picking up a female news reporter in a proud display of strength.

But as his vigor waned in more recent years, Mr. Thurmond had obvious difficulty getting around the Senate or much less remembering his schedule and even the names of other senators with whom he had worked for years.

“The blunt fact is that the Senate is, in effect, Thurmond’s nursing home,” Newsweek magazine wrote in 1996. The same issue reported that Mr. Thurmond forgot the name of Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, when he rose to introduce him at a Rotary Club dinner.

Mr. Thurmond’s health declined rapidly in the last three years of his life, with a half-dozen visits to the hospital in just the year before his 99th birthday.

At that birthday party in December 2001, with aides bracing each arm, Mr. Thurmond paused for photographers before the luncheon, which featured a cake and a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

“I love all of you, and if you’re a woman, I love you even more,” responded Mr. Thurmond, maintaining his reputation as a colorful and flirtatious character.

Asked by a female reporter how he planned to celebrate his birthday, Mr. Thurmond first responded, “Nothing special.” But after thinking for a moment, he took the reporter’s hand and said, “Maybe I can take you out on a blind date.”

First elected to the Senate in 1954 as the first and only senator ever to be elected as a write-in candidate, the South Carolina lawmaker remained one of his state’s most popular politicians.

He was returned to office in 1996 after crushing his opponent, Democrat Elliott Close, a wealthy real estate developer. Mr. Thurmond thanked his constituents by including $86 million for military-construction projects in South Carolina in a sweeping defense-authorization bill for 1997, crafted by his committee.

Mr. Thurmond began his political career as a Democrat, but bolted the party in 1948 to run as the States’ Rights candidate for president. He joined the Republican Party in 1964, declaring that the Democratic Party, which had adopted a strong civil rights plank, was “leading the evolution of our nation to a socialistic dictatorship.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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