Senate Bids Adieu To Its ‘Giant Oak’

Posted June 27, 2003 at 6:16pm

A Congressional delegation will travel to South Carolina Tuesday to attend the funeral and honor the memory of former Sen. Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving Senator in history, who died Thursday at the age of 100.

Thurmond, a Democrat-turned-Republican who ran for president on a segregationist platform in 1948, retired in January after serving eight terms. He retired as the oldest person ever to serve in Congress.

Upon learning of Thurmond’s death, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) said “a giant oak in [the] forest of public service has fallen.”

“Even though we ended up on other sides of the aisle, there was never any doubt about the interest of South Carolina,” said Hollings, who served with Thurmond for 36 years.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) briefly interrupted Thursday night’s historic Medicare debate in order to inform the chamber of Thurmond’s death. He led the lawmakers in a moment of silence for their late colleague.

There were brief tributes Thursday night from Frist, Hollings, Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Then the Majority Leader said that the chamber would finish the Medicare bill with longer tributes to Thurmond to come the following day.

“Strom Thurmond will forever be a symbol of what one person can accomplish when they live life to the fullest,” Frist said on Friday.

As warm words poured in from former colleagues on both sides of the aisle Friday morning, the Senate approved a resolution honoring the South Carolina Republican.

A similar measure is likely to be offered in the House when Congress returns from the Fourth of July recess, according to a spokesman for Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

“In his remarkable six decades of public service, Senator Thurmond advanced the cause of freedom for America and his beloved South Carolina,” DeMint said in a statement released by his office. “From the fields of Normandy to the hallowed halls of the Senate, Senator Thurmond brought strength, grace and dignity to his duties, as a soldier and as a public official.”

Thurmond was as colorful as he was controversial during his time in the Senate, and he holds many of the chamber’s records on longevity. He is also the only individual to win a Congressional election as a write-in candidate.

In addition to serving as President Pro Tem, he was chairman of both the Armed Services and Judiciary committees at various times in his long career.

Friends recalled that Thurmond was particularly proud of his strong support of America’s troops during his time on Armed Services. At the age of 42, he volunteered for service in World War II, where he took part in the Normandy invasion.

“He’ll go down in history as one of the greatest patriots ever,” said Van Hipp, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who is now CEO of American Defense International Inc.

But it was Thurmond’s marathon filibuster of civil rights legislation in 1957 that people seem to remember most. He held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an effort to block the bill, a record that stands to this day.

Thurmond claimed his filibuster had nothing to do with race, but rather it was a states’ rights issue.

Over the years, he was able to move somewhat beyond the civil rights filibuster, in part by taking such actions as being the first Southern Senator to hire a black staffer.

“He lived at times a controversial life, but the biggest testament I can give to Senator Thurmond is that he changed,” Graham, who succeeded Thurmond in the chamber, said in a floor speech shortly after the former Senator’s death was announced Thursday night.

“He changed with the times,” Graham said. “We have had some problems the last few months talking about Senator Thurmond, trying to freeze him in time. Those of you who know the man understand that he changed with the times.”

Graham was referring to the retiring Senator’s December birthday party when then-Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) appeared to praise Thurmond’s segregationist presidential platform. Lott’s remarks triggered a national debate on race relations and forced the GOP to evaluate its own efforts to attract minority staffers and voters. Unable to diffuse the controversy, Lott was forced to resign his leadership post.

After his retirement, Thurmond moved back to his hometown, Edgefield, S.C., where he died last week.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Thurmond’s personality was his fondness for women, which he alluded to in his farewell speech on the Senate floor.

“As I close out my public service career, I again thank my constituents, my colleagues, my staff and my family,” Thurmond said Sept. 24, 2002. “May God bless each of you, the U.S. Senate, and God bless the United States of America.

“I love all of you, and especially your wives,” he added.

Thurmond had been in particularly frail health during his final year in the Senate, using a wheelchair to get around the Capitol and moving into a special room at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to ensure that he received the best of care.

In his final term, Thurmond’s age and health became an issue. Under pressure from GOP leaders, he announced in 1997 that he would step down as chairman of the powerful Armed Services panel in 1999.

In 2001, a dehydrated Thurmond collapsed on the Senate floor and needed to be rushed to the hospital. A year later, paramedics treated Thurmond again for dehydration at the funeral of his longtime aide Holly Richardson.

Even though Thurmond was not as powerful in the last few years of his final term, he was able to convince his Senate colleagues to approve his 28-year-old namesake son to be U.S. attorney in the Palmetto State.

Senators took to the floor Friday to offer up stories and anecdotes about their former colleague.

“I had come up to this Senate in the mid-1980s as a nominee, and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was nominated for a federal judgeship but was ultimately rejected by the Senate. “I’ll never forget and appreciate his courtesy and support for me at that time.”

A fierce fighter for South Carolina, Thurmond was well known for his constituent services and delivering pork to his state.

Before running for Senate, Thurmond served one term as South Carolina governor, a perch from which he ran for president as a Dixiecrat. He won four states and 39 electoral votes in that election.

Thurmond was born Dec. 5, 1902. His funeral will be Tuesday at the First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., and he will be buried in Edgefield.