If Washington's death watch seems a bit ghoulish, so does South Carolina's. It was revealed that Thurmond's ex-wife, Nancy, helped the senator make a videotape: "Strom Thurmond's Last Message to the People of South Carolina." "For Strom, it seemed logical," she explained, "like a living will, estate planning, funeral arrangements." The tape, made fifteen months ago, included Strom's plug for Nancy's appointment as his replacement, should Strom expire before his term expires in 2002. Thurmond's first wife was twenty-three years his junior. When she died, he married Nancy, who was forty-four years younger. The secret to longevity, he has often said, is "diet, exercise and pretty women."
If Strom does move on, however, Governor Hodges is most unlikely to appoint Nancy Thurmond or any other Republican to fill the seat. The African-American voters of South Carolina-- voters crucial to Governor Hodges's own future--would not be amused. Thurmond, after all, is most famous as a foul old racist. He is a gentler figure now, but before George Wallace came along, Strom was the leading political voice of the white South's resistance to civil rights. He ran as the Dixiecrat presidential candidate against Harry Truman in 1948; became a Republican in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater, who opposed civil rights; then helped Richard Nixon secure the GOP nomination in 1968 with a promise that Nixon would defuse enforcement of school desegregation (Nixon tried, but federal courts rebuffed him).
Thurmond dropped overt appeals to white supremacy only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As blacks registered and voted in swelling numbers, they defeated a seg Republican running for governor in the early 1970s. Strom could count. He appointed a black staff member, one of the first Deep South senators to do so. But his state Republican Party remains an all-white club--voting against the interests of black citizens and still occasionally playing the race card, albeit less bluntly. "Strom gets a free ride because he's a kindly old man," one Democratic insider said. "But he's still a reactionary."
The Thurmond watch has prompted some to look around the Senate chamber and wonder who else might be called home. Jesse Helms is on everybody's list, since he's ailing too. But the North Carolina senator, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, just demonstrated his vigor and intellectual energy with an unprecedented visit to Mexico to meet President Vicente Fox. Democrats, on the other hand, could lose a vote if New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli gets wiped out by the accusations of corruption.
Whatever unfolds, nothing this year is likely to match the Great Die-Off of the 83rd Congress. In 1953-54, when Eisenhower was President, nine senators died (including one suicide) and another resigned. The Republicans' slender majority was perpetually imperiled, as more senators dropped. At one point in 1954, the count shifted to forty-seven Rs and forty-eight Ds, but then another Democrat died. Strom Thurmond was first elected to his Senate seat that year.