Some figures in the world of entertainment only need one name, not two like mere mortals. Prince, Bono, Ringo, Madonna, Sting, and Shakira to name only a few.
The man pictured in this 1990’s photograph with me, while not in entertainment, was both entertaining and only required a one-word identifier. Strom.
County and city attorney, D-day veteran, state senator, governor, presidential candidate, long-serving U.S. Senator, Strom Thurmond had the largest hat rack in the history of his native South Carolina. Due to Strom’s long Senate tenure, when 83-yr-old Fritz Hollings retired in 2005, he was still the Junior Senator from South Carolina.
Strom also carried other titles: segregationist, racist, serial philanderer, and father to Essie Mae Washington-Williams who was officially acknowledged as his out-of- wedlock daughter after his death. Despite these well-deserved monikers, Strom was beloved by his constituents to the very end. One constituent at a time, he wrote the book on service to the folks back home. They said he had shaken every hand in South Carolina at least twice and when old age and infirmity took away his mobility, (and his competence), he reached out in a different way.
They sat Strom in a back room of his Senate Office each morning of the week and with the obituaries from the Post and Courier, The State, and the Herald Journal in hand, the staff computer-searched the phone numbers of the bereaved, dialed the numbers and connected the Senator. Over and over, he would say, “This is your Senator Strom Thurmond, and I want to say how very sorry I am about your loss. God Bless you and your family. Goodbye.” Each morning, the same routine.
When Aunt Betty got the call, she’d call the kids, the neighbors, and friends. She’d tell the women at church, the mailman, the refrigerator repairman, and the man bagging her groceries at the Piggly Wiggly. Guess who called me about Frank’s death? I didn’t even know that he knew Strom Thurmond. Wasn’t that just the sweetest?
Strom’s long-time chief of staff Duke Short had been called the most powerful staffer in the Congress. As Strom cleared the 95-yr-old mark and could barely read the three by five card they had written out for him to gavel the Senate into session each morning, the insiders started referring to Duke as the 101st Senator. Surely Strom was no longer calling the shots.
If you need evidence that Strom “stayed too long at the fair”, here’s a beauty. The Senator had a meeting late in his career with two distinguished young women from a Hispanic advocacy group in South Carolina. Despite his staff’s best efforts to explain the meeting to Senator Thurmond, he was under the impression that these women were applying for the housekeeper job that he had open at the time. His questioning of them was both cringe-worthy and legend.
This photo is from one of our exhibit openings at the National Archives. We would have a nice party courtesy of the exhibit sponsor, string music provided by the US Marine Corps, and a guest list made up of current and past Washington celebrities. I don’t remember which event this was because Strom came to ‘em all. Everyone in the Washington event business knew that the three most predictable “yes” RSVPs were George McGovern, Rosemary Woods (Nixon’s old secretary), and Strom Thurmond. By the 1990’s the first two were old news and frequently available, and Strom’s young staff would do damned near anything to get him off their hands for an evening. They’d pull up in the staff car, get him to the door, and disappear, heading straight to Georgetown for a pub crawl. They’d come back to pick him up by 10:00pm so they could get him home early. Morning meant getting Strom up, shaved, washed, dressed, and to the Senate floor to open the proceedings by 9:00am. Unenviable work
As I reflect on my time with Strom, Jessie, Mitch, and others whose political views I did not share, I must confess to having ambiguous feelings. Some turned out to be the monsters of my imagination, but often it was clear why they were loved back home. As I have said before, I had to remind myself that it was not my job to judge their views, but to get their vote. Did I more enjoy my time with those whose views I shared? Absolutely. Could a third-party observer tell the difference? I hope not.