By Bob Paslay
The History Channel and others occasionally show the old black and white coverage of the 1948 Democratic Convention in which then-Gov. Strom Thurmond leads the southerners out because they were unhappy with the Civil Rights plank. But will any of us ever be able to watch it without knowing that by that time Thurmond had a big secret. He had fathered an African American baby because his raging hormones made him unable to keep his hands off of a teen housekeeper in his father's house in South Carolina?
It's funny how one bit of information can affect profoundly the way we look at things.
Some years ago, The Washington Post hinted at this little secret but most in South Carolina accustomed to the hero being attacked discounted it.
Now his "love child," a charming woman with the same speech pattern and mannerisms of her father, who happens to be in her 80s, has come forward and even the Thurmond family has had to grudgingly acknowledge her existence.
I hesitate to make a reference to Thomas Jefferson in the same breath as Thurmond because even though he lived so much longer than Jefferson, Thurmond was not even on the same playing field as the former president who also fathered a black child out of wedlock.
In the case of Jefferson, you can still think of his overall accomplishments without this shortcoming totally dominating your view of him. At that time human beings were property (will anyone 100 years from now ever be able to understand this concept?) It makes for fascinating reading in the case of Jefferson. I am not sure this total life viewed with one glitch will be the case in Thurmond's incident. The reason is that he made such a big deal over race. Besides the convention walkout and the run for president on the Dixiecrat Party, he also set a Senate filibuster debate record, trying to stop a Civil Rights bill from passing the Senate.
After southerners like George Wallace began admitting the error of their ways, Thurmond was pretty silent on the issue. Some black leaders in South Carolina came to accept and in some instances even endorse Thurmond who was able to get funding for black organizations and colleges. He hired a black for his staff.
You ask how the media in the state was not able to pin Thurmond down on whether he had changed. I am a South Carolinian and spent much of my journalism career there and I will attempt to explain why. First, Thurmond's people were able to manage the situation.
Even as Thurmond sought one more six-year term when he was probably not up to it, he got by. No one ever got the definitive interview with Thumond like they did with Wallace. He was a private man who succeeded in keeping life pretty much away from the public view. When the old codger married women decades younger than him the people made jokes and thought it was somehow charming. The myth-legend became so much bigger than the man.
Thurmond was not a political philosopher. He was a little town politician who kept getting elected and because of this longevity became kind of a legend in South Carolina. All of his life he said just what people wanted to hear. I remember covering a barbecue in which Thurmond was the keynote speaker. He was by that time a man in his 80s. He couldn't stay for the barbecue but I remember him saying to one of his aides: "Get them to make us up four or five plates to take with us."
Even though only a few heartbeats away from the presidency at times, on a Saturday afternoon he could be folding towels at his house after doing the laundry or could be seen stuffing napkins of food in his pockets at a reception to take home. The rumor floated that female Senate staff members and interns were warned not to get on an elevator alone with Thurmond because they might get groped. They will probably never do it but his former staffers could probably write a funny book on working for Senator Vegetable. In his later life when Clemson University decided to start the Strom Thurmond Institute to further political thinking, Thurmond agreed to donate all of his "papers" to the institute. What arrived were truck after truck of newspaper clippings of Thurmond standing next to a summer intern shaking his or her hand. Unlike Jefferson he had no "papers" because he wasn't a thinker, a reasoner. In that regard he was a robot of sorts. The great South Carolina political philosopher, John C. Calhoun, made Thurmond look like a lightweight. My brother sat next to his last wife, Nancy, in law school (she didn't make it through the first semester). The joke in South Carolina is the reason she separated from Thurmond was that one day she looked up and saw old age creeping up on her in the bedroom. Her conduct of selling Thurmond memorabilia and trying to get Thurmond to retire early so she could have the seat further add to this comic soap opera. Yes, when all the smoke clears what we have, with the latest chapter added recently, is "As The Thurmond Turns."]
Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, Ext. 257 or at bpaslay @news-daily.com.