Strom Watch

Strom Watch

As he goes, so goes the Senate.


Is it in bad taste to talk about the death of Strom Thurmond before he has actually died? Probably, but hey, everyone in the Washington power corridors seems to be talking about it, even Strom. "I'd like to be buried in South Carolina, in Aiken," the extremely senior South Carolina senator recently told a reporter from the Charleston Post and Courier. As a decorated veteran of World War II (he parachuted into Normandy on D-Day), Thurmond is entitled to a last resting place in Arlington National Cemetery but prefers his home ground. "But I'm not thinking about dying soon," the 98-year-old senator added. "I expect to live a long time."

The actuarial projections of Senate colleagues run hard in the opposite direction. Thurmond, the longest-serving senator in US history, is extremely frail. His poor condition has provided the macabre subtext for Congressional politics in George W. Bush's opening months. "Strom looks terrible, really bad," an insider confided. "It's actually kind of pathetic and sad." The senator's shuffling gait has slowed markedly, with aides always close at hand. Doctors have urged him to use a wheelchair to ease the pain in his hips, but according to acquaintances, Strom is too proud and guts it out. Likewise for a hearing aide. The senator has been hospitalized numerous times during the past few years, most recently in February, for exhaustion or dehydration or perhaps other unspecified ailments. On his 98th birthday, last December, a reporter asked why he had blacked out recently at a suburban restaurant, after which he was rushed to the hospital. The senator said he did not recall. Told that doctors suspected dehydration, the senator laughed. "Everybody ought to drink more water," he said.

If Strom does die, his passing matters greatly to the Republic. The 50-50 Senate abruptly becomes 50-49 Democratic. Then, assuming South Carolina's Democratic Governor, Jim Hodges, appoints a Democrat as Thurmond's successor, the Senate becomes 51-49. In that event, the delicate ground rules worked out for operating the Senate with an even split would be tossed out. Democrats would become the chairs of all committees. And, most important, Democratic leaders would take control of the legislative flow.

If Dems become the majority, George Bush's frail young presidency would have to devise a less breathless strategy for legislating, because Democrats would decide which bills come to the Senate floor and when. They would certainly not have permitted Bush to secure early passage of his tax-cut bill. If they were in control, the Dems could mobilize for early action on a minimum-wage increase or the long-stalled patients' bill of rights, among other issues. Of course, they would still have to find the votes for passage and would have to dicker with the White House, but their bargaining position would be substantially improved.

The downside for Senate Dems is that they would also lose their cover–the excuse for their limp performance. As the minority half of the 50-50 Senate (thanks to Veep Dick Cheney's power as tiebreaker), Democratic senators have been relatively passive and have ceded a lot of ground to the Bush agenda, pleading their weak status. At the grassroots, people want much more aggressive opposition, and they are steamed. If minority leader Tom Daschle suddenly becomes majority leader, he will doubtless hear fiercer complaints. His operating strategy so far seems designed not to discomfort any incumbent Democrats facing tough campaigns next year by forcing the party to embrace bolder positions. If Daschle doesn't change his style, Dems may look like a mushy majority.

All this is why everyone watches the old man's shuffling steps (careful to say nothing in public, but buzzing quite a lot in private). Some Democratic senators speculate among themselves that Strom's health explains why the White House insisted on an accelerated legislative schedule; there's no time to bargain out compromises. Bush wants to record as many of Strom's votes as he can before it's too late. Senate staffers watch the floor daily to see if Strom, as president pro tem of the Senate, shows up for his routine of opening the daily session. Usually, he no longer does. Such small clues spin out as elaborate gossip, reminiscent of the Kremlin or the court of Louis XVI. Six or seven weeks ago, the political-media hive went on full alert when the rumor swept town that the Senate's sergeant-at-arms had been notified and the senator would soon be lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Nothing came of it. As his folks back home like to observe, South Carolina cemeteries are filled with people waiting for Strom to die.

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.

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