Backing Into the Future: Strom’s Peculiar Leadership

Strom: The Complicated
Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond
, by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson. PublicAffairs, 415 pages, $27.50.

Of
the many strange moments during the 1999 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the strangest may have come when Senator Strom Thurmond swore in Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided at the trial. Not only did the 96-year-old South Carolina legislator possess a reputation for lechery (“When he dies,”
a
colleague once cracked, “they’ll have to beat his pecker down with a baseball bat in order to close the coffin lid”), but he also harbored his own sexual
secret: Seventy-four years earlier, Carrie Butler, a fetching black servant in the Thurmond family home, had given birth to Strom’s illegitimate daughter, Essie Mae. If his fellow conservatives could impeach President Clinton for an illicit affair with a White House intern, the onetime segregationist asked advisers, what would they do when he was revealed as the father of an illegitimate, racially mixed child?

In
December 2003, barely six months after Thurmond’s death at 100, The Washington Post broke the story. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, now a retired Los Angeles school teacher, was speaking up after decades of silence. Though rumors of Thurmond’s black daughter had long circulated in South Carolina, their confirmation, as Thurmond had foreseen, made front-page news. The impact, however, was surprising: While some blacks and liberals used the occasion both to point out the late Senator’s hypocrisy and point up the history of unwanted intimacies visited upon black women by white men in the South, most conservatives responded with tolerance.
For one thing, Essie Mae said that Thurmond, in his way, had been a good father, never denying the relationship and supporting her financially. For another, Thurmond’s white children in South Carolina, while not quite welcoming their black sister into the fold, extended her every courtesy, inviting her to family functions and to dine in their homes. Unlikely as it at one time would have seemed, Thurmond had bequeathed his fellow Southerners with an opportunity to contemplate their racial heritage and, possibly, move forward to greater understanding.

As
Jack Bass, a veteran South Carolina reporter, and Marilyn W. Thompson, the former Post reporter who found Essie Mae, tell it in Strom, their thorough, nuanced and at times stirring biography, the acknowledgement of the Senator’s black offspring was the improbable capstone of a life marked by many improbable events, some of them almost equally significant. The authors argue that Thurmond unwittingly led the South into the future, contending that more than any other Southern politician of the 20th century, he acted out the region’s pivotal dramas. In the process, he changed the nation as well.

The
transformation began in 1948 when as South Carolina’s governor Thurmond briefly broke from the Democratic Party to accept the Dixiecrat nomination to run for President. Thurmond’s defection, which appealed to the region’s worst instincts regarding race and betrayed his earlier incarnation as a New Dealer with progressive views, set the stage for the destruction of the solid South. The shape of things to come was further outlined in 1964 when Thurmond, who’d been elected to the Senate in 1954, bolted from the Democratic Party for good and joined the Republicans. In 1968, Thurmond delivered Dixie to Richard Nixon, thereby ending the old order and christening the one that still prevails. In the wake of all of this, other Southern Democrats changed stripes, the Supreme Court grew more conservative (Thurmond single-handedly defeated the nomination of Abe Fortas), and the two George Bushes (Lee Atwater, campaign capo to the elder Bush, was a Thurmond protégé) ascended to the highest office in the land.

That
Thurmond, a physical-fitness fanatic who on the eve of his first marriage posed standing on his head for Life magazine, could turn the political world on its head owes much to the views he absorbed in his hometown of Edgefield, S.C., which perches on the Savannah River between the Piedmont and the low country. A Faulknerian hamlet where the South’s beliefs regarding individualism, race and honor coalesced into an unspoken faith, Edgefield endowed its native sons with a fierce zeal. In Mr.
Bass and Ms. Thompson’s nice turn of phrase, Thurmond approached life with “the boldness of an Edgefield man.” No wonder that as an Army officer during World War II, he volunteered to fly a glider into France on D-Day.

Thurmond’s
confidence often swelled into a ludicrous kind of vanity, particularly as it related to his dealings with the ladies. Though he had loving relationships with each of his two wives and was capable of courtliness, he was, at heart, a rogue. Even on his best behavior, he was prone—as evidenced by his conduct at a Washington party in the late 1950’s when he slithered between the writer Sally Quinn and her mother and simultaneously fondled both women’s bottoms—to rascality. This, however, was mild stuff. The authors corroborate a longstanding South Carolina legend that as governor Thurmond slept with a mistress who’d been convicted of murder as she was being transferred from the state prison to the death house, where she was ultimately executed.

By
the time Thurmond retired from the Senate in 2003, he was both the oldest man to hold office in the upper chamber and its longest-serving member. For all of this, however, he did not accomplish much legislatively. Indeed, during his half-century in Washington, the largely abstemious Senator’s biggest claim to fame was as the sponsor of a bill to get warning labels placed on alcoholic beverages. No matter: It was as a force of nature that Strom exerted influence.
When brute strength was needed to combat the Civil Rights Act in 1957, Thurmond prepared himself by sitting in a Washington steam bath (the better to avoid trips to the urinal later), then filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes, still a record. Indeed, Thurmond was so powerful that he sometimes sweeps Mr.
Bass and Ms. Thompson off their reportorial feet. The two covered the Senator for many years and have an irksome habit of referring to themselves in the third person at key moments in the book. Such passages, while they attest to the authors’ closeness to the great man, are overly familiar and disrupt an otherwise seamless narrative.

Such
quibbles notwithstanding, Jack Bass and Marilyn Thompson (who in 2003 published Ol’ Strom, a tune-up for this volume that by necessity includes nothing about Essie Mae) have produced what for now is the definitive work. Not only do they illuminate their subject’s life, but they offer a parallel account of Essie Mae’s.

Though
the authors don’t spell out their view on what it all means, they conclude with a couple of telling vignettes: On July 1, 2004, in a ceremony at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia, Essie Mae’s name was engraved on a monument to Thurmond alongside those of his white children. Shortly thereafter, this proud, black woman—who, like her father, exhibits Edgefield boldness—applied for membership in the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Old
times may not be forgotten in the land of cotton, but thanks to Strom and Essie Mae, new times are sure enough different.

Steve Oney, author of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (Vintage), is a senior writer at Los Angeles magazine.

Backing Into the Future: Strom’s Peculiar Leadership