Just as even one of his enemies called Julius Caesar “the noblest Roman of them all,” so too could former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina be called the noblest American statesman of his generation. In fact, the longest-serving U.S.senator, who died Thursday at age 100 and whose funeral is today in Columbia, was lauded several years ago by polar opposite Sen. Ted Kennedy for his “enduring commitment to the nation’s highest ideals.”
Thelawmaker,lawyer, judge, soldier, farmer, teacher, school superintendentand governor is the subject of tributes in every South Carolina newspaper. A blaring front-page the Hilton HeadPacket headline was most apt: “Abilitytoadapt aidedThurmond.”
Consider that J. Strom Thurmond was born Dec. 5, 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt was president, when the average price of a house was $4,000 and the average income was $681 annually.Athis 100th birthday party, we laughed together that he had a daughter still in her 20s and a grandfather who had fought in the War Between the States. The senator died knowing that he had immensely helped his beloved South Carolina make a great transition into 21st century progress — and that made him proud.
Indeed, his exemplary record of constituent service, from the time he was elected to the Senate on a write-in vote in 1954 to his retirement this past January, should remind every American that public service can be a noble calling.
How many people in their 40s would have given up a secure judgeship to risk life and limb in battle? Strom Thurmond did. On D-Day — at age 44 — he volunteered to parachute out of a plane behind enemy lines at Normandy with other members of the famed 82nd Airborne Division. He displayed bravery in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II, accumulating five battle stars and 17 decorations and awards, including the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart.
After the war, he was elected governor of his native state and was a progressive one — even abolishing the poll tax. He was a segregationist, as were virtually all of the white politicians of that era. And when he was in the Senate in 1957, he set the record for the longest filibuster ever by a U.S. senator — 24 hours and 18 minutes. He was battling a civil rights bill, he once told me, “in the name of states’ rights.” And, yes, he was the fiery 1948 presidential candidate of the breakaway Democratic States’ Rights Party. But he was also well-known for his acts of outreach to black and white constituents alike, support for South Carolina’s historically black colleges — and in the early 1980s he voted for the holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He knew how to adapt.
Perhaps his most enduring legacy, however, is how he fostered the rise of the Republican Party in the old Confederacy. He dramatically switched from Democrat to Republican in 1964, blasting his old party’s “socialism and high taxes” while embracing the GOP presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. His advisor Harry Dent, who the senator later placed in the White House as an aide to President Richard Nixon, recalled that “afterchangingpolitical stripes, Sen. Thurmond won re-election by two-thirds of a margin of victory. In doing so, he changed politics across South Carolina, the South and theU.S.A.” Southerners — especially blue-collar whites — beganvoting Republican. That, in turn,eventually led to the creation oftwo-partystates throughout Dixie.
It should also berememberedthat, whileinthe Senate in the late 1950s, Sen. Thurmond was the first modern politician to urge the development of an anti-ballistic missile system. It was also Sen. Thurmond who beat a lot of Democrats to the punch by repeatedly warning as far back as 1965 that then-President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War strategy was leading to a “no-win” war.
Initiating change — and adapting — requires leadership and courage. Strom Thurmond displayed it time and again as he laughed in the face of Father Time. Would that we could have far more U.S. lawmakers today at the state and national levels displaying such statesmanlike qualities.
Phil Kent is president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation.