- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina today celebrates his 99th birthday, adding another highlight to what his colleagues yesterday described as a "remarkable" career as the oldest-living and longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate.

"He is a legend, and we all aspire to follow the example that Sen. Thurmond has set in terms of service to his state and his country," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.

"It's not just about longevity, it's about the kind of senator he is, his commitment to his people and his commitment to serving our country," Mr. Lott said.

Mr. Thurmond has lead "one of the most remarkable political careers that you will find in the whole congressional directories going back over 200 years," said the longest-serving Democrat, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Mr. Byrd and Mr. Thurmond each have cast more than 17,000 votes in the Senate; however, Mr. Byrd maintains a slight lead.

Mr. Thurmond holds the all-time filibuster record 24 hours consecutively in a debate against a desegregation bill. Mr. Thurmond later changed his position on racial integration and was the first Capitol Hill lawmaker to hire black staffers.

"He is a remarkable man, with a remarkable career, and he has been remarkably blessed by the good Lord to let him live 99 years," Mr. Byrd said.

Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, also wished Mr. Thurmond a happy birthday with many more in the future.

"And I'm sure that will be the case," Mr. Daschle said.

Colleagues yesterday recounted some of their favorite stories and antics of the conservative lawmaker after a luncheon honoring his birthday.

"The best time I had with Strom was when we went to China," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. "We were at a Chinese army base and the troops were in formation. Strom walked up and down the line inspecting the soldiers and I told him later, 'Strom, in my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be with you in China and see you inspect the line of a group of Communist Chinese troops.'"

When President Clinton's health care plan was being debated on Capitol Hill, former Sen. Bob Dole, Kansas Republican, declared: "The Clinton health care plan? I want the Thurmond health care plan. If Strom eats a banana, I eat a banana," recalled Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

"He's been a stalwart for defense. He's been a voice for conservatives. He's an institution within an institution," Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Thurmond was first elected to the Senate in 1954 as a write-in candidate and remains the state's most popular politician. He is set to retire at the end of 2002 at the age of 100.

He first ran as a Democrat but switched to the Republican Party in 1964 because of civil-rights disagreements.

Mr. Thurmond's health has declined in the past two years, and he has made a half-dozen visits to the hospital this year.

He collapsed at his Senate desk in early October, but did not lose consciousness. He now resides at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but commutes to the Capitol daily and has not missed a vote.

"He looks a lot stronger to me and full of spirit," Mr. Sessions said.

With aides bracing each arm, Mr. Thurmond paused for photographers before yesterday's 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."

This story was based in part on wire reports.

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