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The Hypocrite: Strom Thurmond’s Lasting Legacy

IN JANUARY 1967, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who had recently become the first African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, went to integrate the swimming pool in the “Senators Only” gym of the Russell Building on Capitol Hill. There he encountered South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and a few other segregationist Southern senators swimming laps. As Brooke recorded in his memoir, Bridging the Divide, Thurmond and the other defenders of Jim Crow welcomed him into the pool without any apparent hesitation or ill will. He found this curiously disappointing. “I felt that if a senator truly believed in racial separatism I could live with that,” Brooke recalled, but it became evident to him that segregationists like Thurmond “played on bigotry purely for political gain. They appealed to ignorance and prejudice to entrench themselves in office.”

As Joseph Crespino’s new biography makes clear, Thurmond lacked the integrity even of his own publicly proclaimed racism. As the Dixiecrats’ presidential candidate in 1948, Thurmond demagogically declared that the entire U.S. Army couldn’t force white southerners to “admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” But two decades earlier he had fathered an illegitimate daughter with his family’s African American servant. Thurmond maintained warm relations with his daughter, Essie Mae, even while building his political career on claims of black inferiority and condemnation of miscegenation. He kept his daughter a secret until his death at age one hundred in 2003.

Thurmond believed that his personal conduct and his political actions had nothing to do with each other. But revelations of Thurmond’s monumental hypocrisies not only strengthened the view that “the personal is political,” they also helped foster the widespread belief that politicians inwardly lust after what they profess to condemn. Nowadays, when a religious or political official starts denouncing homosexuality in particularly heated terms, many expect that it is only a matter of time before he will be caught playing footsie in a restroom stall. It seems a matter of satire more than history that Thurmond, of all politicians, presided over the opening of the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. In his contributions to public cynicism, as well as to racial polarization, the breakdown of Congressional norms of teamwork, the triumph of politics over governing, and much else that has degraded the American political system, Thurmond was a pioneer. The most pessimistic political observers may be tempted to agree that we are all living in Strom Thurmond’s America, in the words of Crespino’s title.

Crespino encompasses a vast sweep of twentieth-century political history in America through his depiction of Thurmond’s life and times. Thurmond was first elected to public office in 1928—when he became superintendent of his home county at the age of twenty-five—and was a U.S. senator for forty-eight years; he also presaged the transformation of the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, and the takeover of the GOP by Southern-inflected conservatism. Crespino is less successful, however, in arguing that his subject was central to the development of the modern Republican Party. Thurmond seems, rather, to have pursued a single-minded course of political opportunism, which sometimes coincided with and often benefited from the rising conservative movement.

Thurmond was a Democrat when he entered politics, and even something of a progressive. As superintendent of Edgefield County, he started literacy classes for both blacks and whites, and became “an ardent New Dealer” and “devoted admirer of Franklin Roosevelt,” in Crespino’s words, after his election to the South Carolina Senate in 1932. He supported federal relief programs and federal welfare spending, although like other Southern politicians he ensured that the New Deal’s benefits went overwhelmingly to whites. After service in World War II, he was elected governor of South Carolina in 1946. As governor, he called for modernized state government, abolition of the poll tax, a state minimum-wage law, and other reforms to benefit labor. At the same time, he eagerly pursued economic growth for his underdeveloped state, which eventually led him to turn against his labor allies and make common cause with conservative business and industrial interests.

In 1948, when Southerners opposed to President Harry S. Truman’s advocacy of civil rights broke away from the Democratic convention to form the States’ Rights Party, Thurmond became the Dixiecrats’ presidential candidate. This also led him to the right, according to Crespino, as he attempted to camouflage the sordid defense of white supremacy in the more attractive rhetoric of anti-statism and anti-Communism. While the Dixiecrats carried only four states in the Deep South, Crespino argues that Thurmond broke new political ground by creating an alliance of southern segregationists with business opponents of the New Deal. Crespino is correct to chastise those historians who claim that conservatives from western and southern “Sunbelt” states were principled ideologues while Deep South conservatives were mere racists. Sunbelt conservatives often were thinly veiled bigots while Southerners like Thurmond championed the anti-Communist, free market, militaristic doctrines associated with the more “modern” Sunbelt conservatism. But Crespino overlooks the extent to which the Old Right—the conservatism of the 1930s and 1940s—already had brought together economic and social right-wingers from all parts of the country before Thurmond entered the picture. He also underestimates the efforts that the New Right of the 1950s and 1960s eventually made to distance itself from the antediluvian aspects of the older conservatism.

Thurmond lost a bitterly contested Senate election in 1950 but succeeded as a write-in candidate in a special election in November 1954, overcoming the opposition of the national Democratic Party. As a senator in the ’50s, Thurmond’s principal accomplishments included his authorship of the Southern Manifesto, calling for resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision on school desegregation in 1954, and his record-setting twenty-four-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act in 1957. Crespino rightly points out that Thurmond’s filibuster was an entirely self-serving action undertaken in defiance of his fellow Southern senators, who had already secured a compromise agreement that rendered the bill toothless. Thurmond made a name for himself with his high-profile defense of segregation and his anti-Communist grandstanding, but he had negligible influence compared to equally conservative but more skilled legislators such as John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard Russell of Georgia.

Thurmond’s switch to the Republicans in 1964 is often seen by conservatives and liberals alike as a move that helped GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater crack the Democratic hold on the South and facilitated the emergence of a Southern-oriented conservative Republican Party. It is true that Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped him to win the Deep South states that Thurmond had carried in 1948—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—plus Georgia. But Goldwater lost the Southern states outside the Black Belt that had already voted Republican in at least one of the previous three elections, including Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, and he performed poorly in the suburbs and cities that had voted for Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

Goldwater’s embrace of Thurmond—and, in effect, his segregationist position—had merely traded the support of the New South for support of the the Old South, thereby alienating the rest of the nation. Segregation repelled suburban voters, even in the South, who were otherwise attracted to the Republicans’ economic program. The first GOP presidential candidate to carry the whole South was not Goldwater but Nixon, whose “Southern strategy” repudiated segregation while playing upon more subtle racial resentments. Thurmond was not at the forefront of this development. In any case, as Crespino makes clear, Thurmond’s party-hopping in 1964 was not motivated by acute political foresight so much as self-preservation: the opposition of labor and soon-to-be enfranchised African Americans likely would have defeated Thurmond in the 1966 Democratic primary.

Crespino seeks to portray Thurmond as a prophet of the modern conservative movement that eventually came to dominate the Republican Party. But his thesis is undercut by evidence of Thurmond’s overriding self-interest, which always took precedence over conservative movement-building. In 1968, Thurmond declined to support the New Right’s favored candidate, Ronald Reagan, or even the white backlash candidate, George Wallace, and instead backed the more established Nixon. After 1970, when it became obvious that openly segregationist candidates could no longer win elections even in South Carolina, Thurmond pursued what Crespino calls “a new, more racially temperate path” with the goal of placating black voters, who made up nearly 30 percent of the state’s electorate. Eventually Thurmond would hire black staffers and vote in favor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, statehood for Washington, D.C., and measures to strengthen the Voting Rights Act that he once had denounced. The torch of racial conservatism passed to North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who could better afford to alienate his state’s smaller percentage of African Americans.

Crespino’s biography reflects comprehensive archival research and a deep knowledge of Southern politics, which helps to put Thurmond’s career in context but does little to get at his underlying motives. This is not entirely Crespino’s fault: Thurmond was resistant to introspection and rarely revealed anything of his inner emotions. Unlike George Wallace, he never apologized for his role in upholding segregation. Journalists most often characterized Thurmond in his prime as “humorless”, and there is little color or cornpone in Crespino’s account. He does not dwell on the reptilian courtliness and liver-spotted lechery that distinguished Thurmond in his dotage, perhaps because other biographers have already covered this terrain in nauseating detail.

In the end, however, Crespino’s attempt to portray Thurmond as a towering, consequential figure in American politics does not entirely convince. Certainly there are a lot of suggestive parallels between the modern GOP’s preoccupations and Thurmond’s longstanding enthusiasms for defense spending, anti-labor legislation, Christian conservatism, and racially charged law-and-order themes. But many other Southern politicians sounded similar trumpets over the years, and Thurmond was rarely able to translate his vision into legislative reality. Today’s Tea Partiers might be even more wary of Thurmond’s crony capitalism and prodigious pork-barreling than of his racial record. It is also worth noting that Thurmond was unable to convert his home state to the GOP cause: the South Carolina House remained in Democratic hands until 1996, the state Senate until 2000, and Thurmond never served alongside another South Carolina Republican senator. Ultimately, Thurmond was in it for Thurmond. This is not Strom Thurmond’s America. We are better than that.

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.