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Jewish World Review May 23, 2001 / 1 Sivan 5761

Philip Terzian

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Senator of the century -- I SPENT an afternoon recently watching the Senate Judiciary Committee deliberate on the nomination of Theodore Olson to be solicitor general. But while the action of the committee was interesting enough -- it split along party lines, 9-9, to send Olson's name to the full Senate -- I confess I was mesmerized by the sight of the ranking majority member, J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

I should have been listening to Russ Feingold pay tribute to Russ Feingold's integrity, or Patrick Leahy split hairs with infinite precision. But I was distracted by the spectacle of someone who came into the world during the same year as Charles Lindbergh, was a teenager on the day when Theodore Roosevelt died, and ran for president the same year in which Al Gore was born. In his 99th year, Strom Thurmond has been alive a little less than half the life of the republic.

To be sure, since the Senate is split evenly along partisan lines, Senator Thurmond's age has attracted more than a little attention. And since power trumps discretion in the nation's political capital, the state of Mr. Thurmond's health -- or, to be more specific, the likelihood that he may die -- is more or less an open topic of discussion. These are circumstances a novelist would hesitate to invent, and have led to all sorts of dubious speculation that certain New England Republicans (James Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee) might cross the aisle to the Democrats, thereby tipping the balance of power, or certain Southern Democrats (Zell Miller, John Breaux) are destined to join the Republicans.

My own view is that, given the demographic trends in national politics, Messrs. Jeffords and Chafee would be penalizing themselves by abandoning the GOP, and Messrs. Miller and Breaux value their strategic position as Blue Dog Democrats. So attention, once again, settles on Strom Thurmond.


There are two questions to be answered here. The first question, whether Mr. Thurmond is likely to die, can be answered easily enough: Thurmond, as with any mortal, is destined to perish someday. But it would be dangerous to assume that, because of his great age, that day might be tomorrow. Strom Thurmond was first wed, at the age of 44, to a woman less than half his age. When she died of cancer, he married a former Miss South Carolina who, at the time of her wedding, was the same age as wife number one (21) when she became Mrs. Thurmond. Wife number two is now nearly 60 years of age -- the Thurmonds are separated -- and the Senator still arrives at the Capitol every day to earn his paycheck. Sixty-nine-year-old Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts can waddle across the floor faster than Strom Thurmond, but not by much.

Here is my favorite illustration of the breadth of Strom Thurmond's age. As a lieutenant colonel in the Army, Thurmond was the oldest paratrooper (42) to drop into Normandy on D-Day (1944). But on the 50th anniversary of that historic occasion (1994) the Senator was unable to attend the commemoration in France because it conflicted with his daughter's high school graduation. Fully 52 years old when elected to the Senate, Strom Thurmond has yet managed to become the longest-serving member.

The second question is equally ambiguous: What is the state of the senator's health? Having spoken to him for awhile some months ago, I can report that Thurmond is well aware of the events that swirl around him -- he had a number of pithy observations to make about the presidential campaign -- and fully capable of expressing his views and opinions. He is, of course, about as robust as anyone born in 1902 is likely to be, and as one of his former aides has explained to me, he would "zone in and out" on occasion while a youngster in his seventies. It is fair to say that Strom Thurmond ought not to have run for re-election in 1996, but no one coerced the citizens of South Carolina to reject his opponent.

The medical fact is that Thurmond is in need of a new hip, but such a surgical procedure would be risky for anyone his age, and the senator's vanity -- which is very nearly as impressive as his endurance -- prevents him from using a wheelchair. As a consequence, he leans on the arm of a young staffer (usually female) as he moves slowly about the Capitol.

Strom Thurmond is not the first very elderly senator to invite morbid speculation. I remember the sight and sound of Carl Hayden -- who had represented Arizona from the time it became a state -- tapping his cane in the corridor; and Theodore Francis Green of Rhode Island, who was politely shoved aside by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to make room for J. William Fulbright of Arkansas as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. It is, perhaps, a measure of Strom Thurmond's dotage or vitality that, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was sworn in last January, the first senator to step forward was her new colleague, Strom Thurmond, who asked: "Can I give you a hug?"

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal