The Surviving Segregationist


Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, by Nadine Cohodas, New York: Simon & Schuster, 575 pages, $27.50

The poet and critic Allen Tate once began to write a biography of Robert E. Lee but abandoned it when he decided that Lee wasn't complicated enough to sustain his interest. With Lee, Tate concluded, what you saw was what you got: a man of duty, untroubled by doubt and apparently by temptation. Nadine Cohodas's political biography of Strom Thurmond presents another sort of marble man, embodying principles, winning elections, and representing his constituents without reflection or second thoughts. The man portrayed in this book has no discernible interior life at all and not even a private life apart from politics. He's not just a marble man, but a hollow one.

That may be accurate. In fact, I suspect it is. But Cohodas's Thurmond doesn't even have any real peculiarities. For a successful mid-century Southern politician, he's strangely colorless. This book is an admirable transcript of the words of Southern politics, but the music is heard only rarely. Cohodas just doesn't seem to be particularly interested in the man himself—either that, or she wasn't tuning the right frequencies. True, Thurmond is no Edwin Edwards or George Wallace, but there are these stories about him…

For instance, Cohodas quotes the Clemson college yearbook's assessment of the young Thurmond as a "ladies' man of the 'first water,'" but she doesn't mention that that reputation, mutatis mutandis, has followed him ever since. (At the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings we were told that Thurmond, among other white male senators, "just doesn't get it." Maybe so, but apparently he still tries.)

Cohodas does record Thurmond's penchant for taking young beauty queens to wife (his first young enough to be his daughter; his second young enough to be his granddaughter), and she reproduces a famous Life photograph captioned "VIRILE GOVERNOR demonstrates his prowess in the mansion yard day before wedding." (He was standing on his head.) But she simply deposits these data with us and moves on briskly to more dignified matters, not pausing to ask whether Thurmond's amorous impulses are the most spontaneous and human thing about the old goat, evidence that he's interested in something besides politics, or just another good career move. It's true that Thurmond's tastes have given rise to a good deal of bawdy humor in these parts, but, as another Southern pol once observed, they do love a man in the country.

Similarly, the late Lee Atwater told one of his former teachers (a friend of mine) that Thurmond has almost no sense of humor. According to Atwater, though, the senator loves to hear stories of political dirty tricks—the same ones, over and over. He laughs and laughs. This sort of thing makes the man more interesting, if not more sympathetic, and it is absent from this book.

But to say that Cohodas's sketch is one-dimensional is not to say that her account of Thurmond's public life will interest only political junkies. The man has been involved in some of the great events of our time, and his career provides much food for thought—usually depressing thought—about ends and means, motives and unanticipated consequences.

Even if that thought is usually left as an exercise for the reader, Cohodas has done us a service by assembling the raw materials. She gives us one of the best summaries available of the legal and legislative struggle for the civil rights of black Southerners, a struggle from which Thurmond emerged by virtue of his electoral popularity, political agility, and sheer longevity as one of the few survivors on the losing side.

Until 1948. Thurmond's story was one of monotonous political success, with no more than the usual treachery and double-dealing (in fact, probably less than usual). Born into the segregated South of 1902, he went to college at Clemson, where he was an athlete and BMOC. He served briefly as a high-school teacher and coach until, at the age of 26, he was elected county school superintendent. Three years later (having, on the side, studied privately for the bar, passed it, and begun a law practice) he ran successfully for the state senate. After five years in that body, he was elected to a state judgeship. World War II interrupted this steady progression, but within six months of returning to South Carolina Thurmond announced that he was running for governor. He was 44 years old when he took office in 1947, with less than half his life and not much more than a quarter of his career behind him.

Some of Thurmond's most striking attributes were evident from the first. He has always been an indefatigable and incessant campaigner, never missing a chance to shake hands, learning and remembering every name, spending his spare moments writing notes of sympathy and congratulation to constituents. Also consistently evident was his physical and political courage. As a judge he once faced down an armed householder. He was wounded and won a Bronze Star while landing in France on D-Day with the 82nd Airborne. As governor he took firm action against a lynch mob.

Ironically, for a South Carolina Democrat in the first half of this century, the young Thurmond was something of a progressive. As late as 1947, he was praising the Truman-Roosevelt record. But within a year, of course, he was running against Truman himself, as the candidate of the States' Rights Party, the "Dixiecrats."

Cohodas carefully examines the evidence and essentially accepts Thurmond's account of his motives. She concludes that he was acting as a genuine conservative, consistently (for a politician) opposed to the extension of federal power into matters reserved by the Constitution to the states. In 1948, of course, many other Southern politicians had no interest in limited government except in defense of white supremacy, but Thurmond has always denied that he was ever a racist and, in a narrow sense, he is apparently correct. As a South Carolina NAACP official put it, "I never thought Strom Thurmond actually hated black people. He just never really needed them."

Whatever his motives, his act of disloyalty put Thurmond in the national Democrats' doghouse for good. Although he ran successfully to fill a vacant Senate seat in 1954 (beating the state organization's handpicked candidate and becoming the first person ever elected to the Senate by a write-in vote), he was doomed by the times and his principles to a stance of perpetual opposition, whatever party was in power. When one of his staffers during the Kennedy-Johnson years was asked if he worked for the government, he replied, "No, I work against the government." Thurmond's career had seemingly topped out at leader of the Southern diehards. No influential assignments, cabinet posts, or vice-presidential nominations for him.

But the man had moves in reserve that no one had suspected. After Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thurmond changed parties, in what was seen at the time as an act of daring. Campaigning for his friend and political ally Barry Goldwater, he explained that if Lyndon Johnson was reelected "freedom as we have known it in this country is doomed, and individuals will be destined to lives of regulation, control, coercion, intimidation, and subservience to a power elite who shall rule from Washington." (He got that right, anyway.)

Goldwater lost big, of course, and Democrats sneered about rats swimming to a sinking ship, but four years later the election of Richard Nixon began an era of Republican dominance of the White House and got Thurmond inside the tent. So many of his friends and advisers were in the Nixon administration that some called the White House "Uncle Strom's cabin." The Reagan landslide of 1980 installed Thurmond as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, replacing none other than Ted Kennedy, to the dismay of right-thinking liberals everywhere.

That didn't last, but he's still in the Senate, and still campaigning. (He shook my hand at a stock car race last fall.) Now in his 90s, he's certainly entitled to rest on his laurels, but he just keeps going, and going. One has to suspect that he doesn't know how to do anything else.

Cohodas's portrait of the old man is almost sad. Unintentionally, I suspect, she portrays him as a goofy old duffer handled by savvy staffers who recognize that their jobs and influence depend on his popularity back in the sticks but who labor mightily to keep him from weird acts of self-expression while he's in Washington. Republicans, meanwhile, not knowing what else to do with him, have begun to treat him as a venerable elder statesman. The waning days of the hapless Bush administration saw many strange sights, but none stranger than Thurmond's being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first (and presumably the last) segregationist champion to be so honored.

Cohodas is fascinated by the fact that this former Dixiecrat has come to terms with some of the changes he so stoutly opposed, fashioning an accommodation with the new electorate created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He has reliably brought home the bacon for his black constituents. (The man may have principles, but he's no fool: He has always been happy to take federal money for South Carolina.)

He has also become responsive to their opinions on other matters. He wouldn't put it this way, but he now treats them as a component of the concurrent majority, at least on issues that directly affect their racial interests. He appointed a black staff member even before more-liberal Southern senators did so, he eventually voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1982 (after laboring mightily to amend some of its more obnoxious features), and he has sponsored legislation to set up National Historically Black Colleges Week (although I observed at the time that the senator has always been in favor of separate black colleges).

Unlike even George Wallace, however, Thurmond has never admitted that he ever did anything wrong. Forced to look back on his defense of segregation, he now says, "The reason I took the position I did was, one, that was the law of South Carolina, the law of my state, and next, it was the thinking of the people I represented." In his mind, he's now defending a different law and representing a more inclusive electorate, that's all.

One consistent thread does link the 1940s to the 1990s. Thurmond continues to oppose federal intervention and activism in most matters. The story is told (not in this book) that once, when Thurmond was explicating the 10th Amendment during a Southern filibuster, Lyndon Johnson turned to another Southern senator and said, "Listen to old Strom. You know, he really believes that shit." Say this for Thurmond: Apparently he really did, and does.

And Thurmond's principles aren't bad ones; the 10th Amendment is one of my favorites, too. But he did our principles a disservice; in fact, he may have dealt them a death blow. State governments that failed to protect the persons and property of black citizens—that even used state power to hold them in subordination—invited the growth of countervailing legislative, bureaucratic, and judicial power at the federal level. Thurmond was a stalwart opponent of that growth, but he has never acknowledged the abuse and neglect that made it almost inevitable.

By their doomed defense of segregation and white supremacy, Thurmond and his allies gave states' rights a bad name that lingers to this day, alienated many who should have joined them in the cause of limited government, and forced men and women who sought only simple justice to expedients that some may live to regret. That's some of that food for depressing thought I mentioned earlier.

John Shelton Reed teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest book is My Tears Spoiled My Aim, and Other Reflections on Southern Culture (University of Missouri Press).