W By Mark Leibovich
ASHINGTON – Just after 2 p.m., two aides wheeled Strom Thurmond in his black and silver wheelchair through a crowd of supporters in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “Hiya doon, hiya doon,” the South Carolina Republican said as he grabbed for hands and nodded in response to a flurry of “How you feeling, Senator?” inquiries from assembled friends and current and former staffers. They came to pay tribute to the oldest and longest-serving senator in history, a man who celebrated another gerontological milestone at the Capitol Thursday, becoming the first sitting senator to turn 100 years old.
“He never thought he would live to be 100,” said Armstrong Williams, the syndicated columnist and a former Thurmond intern. “He always thought he would die in the Senate.”
Instead, Thurmond was feted as a kind of living monument to the Capitol. About 500 guests, including many of his current and former colleagues and four Supreme Court justices, attended Thursday’s birthday party and ate chocolate-covered strawberries and bowls of banana and butter pecan ice cream. They stood in a long receiving line to greet the senator, who was perched on a small riser near the podium.
Thurmond appeared to alternate between looking dazed and alert, laughing during some moments and crying at others. At 3 o’clock, the room hushed for a procession of earnest tributes and slightly off-color jokes, many of which focused on Thurmond’s storied appreciation for young women and his old-school way of expressing it.
“I see so many people here today whose life Strom Thurmond has touched – and some he even squeezed,” said the first speaker, Thad Strom, the senator’s distant cousin and a former staffer. Bob Dole offered to introduce Thurmond to Britney Spears, with whom he appeared in a TV advertisement for Pepsi. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott endorsed the idea, riffing off a scene from the ad: “Instead of saying, `Down boy,”‘ Lott said, “You just say, `Down Strom.’ “
Thurmond looked up eagerly when Lott declared that his 89-year-old mother “has a crush on Strom.” Laughter flowed, as it did during the predictable jokes about Thurmond’s age.
Dole recalled the day in 1996 when he told Thurmond he would be retiring from the Senate. “But you just got here,” Thurmond told Dole, who joined the Senate in 1968. When Dole asked do you remember when I first came to the Senate, Thurmond said, “Bob, I remember when Kansas joined the Union.”
But seriously, folks: Strom Thurmond’s been around a while, Dole said, born before there was daylight saving time, before there was a federal income tax and before the Titanic set sail.
Thurmond’s century began with Teddy Roosevelt in the White House. The New York Times published an article that day about “a big red automobile” striking a wagon in Passaic, N.J. He won his first election in 1924, to the school board in his home town of Edgefield, S.C. He joined the Army in 1941, was elected governor of South Carolina as a Democrat in 1946, and became the presidential candidate of the States Rights Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” in 1948, winning 39 electoral votes. He was elected to the Senate in 1954 and has served eight terms – 48 years. He fathered the first of his four children at age 69.
“He has a resume that reads like a snapshot of the 20th century,” said Thurmond’s son Strom Jr.
It is a snapshot that is not always flattering to Thurmond or the nation he served. His career has run the gamut of American ideology, and Thursday’s proceedings had the feel of a historic inventory.
Yet much of his career was ignored Thursday, namely his early days as a fierce segregationist. In 1957 he undertook a one-man filibuster against civil rights legislation that lasted a record 24 hours 18 minutes. “There are not enough troops in the Army to force Southern people to admit the Negroes into our theaters, swimming pools and homes,” Thurmond once said.
But Thurmond later became a supporter of civil rights, whether a signal of personal change or political pragmatism. By the 1980s, he favored a federal holiday to mark Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. He was the first senator from the South to hire a black staff member.
“It’s not fair to freeze this man in time,” says Lindsey Graham, the incoming South Carolina Republican who was elected last month to succeed him. “The longer he was here, the more people he won over.”
Thurmond’s departure will end Ernest Hollings’ 36-year stint as the longest-running junior senator in U.S. history.
Thurmond plans to stay in Washington until shortly before Graham is sworn in on Jan. 7. Then he’ll vacate his room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center – his home for the last year – and move to a suite in a hospital near his boyhood home in Edgefield, where a bronze statue to him stands. Thurmond’s little sister, Mary Tomkins, 93, says she intends to cook special meals for him there.
A red, white and blue ribbon adorned the Strom Thurmond Monument at the South Carolina Statehouse Thursday. Thurmond is to be honored at the White House Friday, and Dec. 12 he will attend ceremonies at Andrews Air Force Base, when the Air Force will name its 100th C-17 cargo plane “Spirit of Strom Thurmond.”
Thursday’s program culminated in a “surprise guest appearance” by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. She serenaded Thurmond with a painful rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President Pro Tempore” and kissed his forehead, leaving a large red blotch. As the room applauded and a 100-candle cake was moved in front of Thurmond, his eyes flowed with tears. He grabbed a small microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how to thank you,” he said. “You’re beautiful people and I appreciate what you’ve done for me and may God allow you to live long and enjoy the time.”
At which point, Thurmond’s daughter Julie Thurmond Whitmer stepped to the podium and announced she was pregnant with his first grandchild, expected around July 4. Crying openly now, Thurmond leaned again to the microphone. “I knew you’d give me exactly what I wanted,” he said.