WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The oldest living United States Senator opens the session of the world's greatest deliberative body with two raps of his white gavel. "The Senate is now in session," twangs Strom Thurmond, the president pror everybody, a "How'ya doin'" here, a "Mighty glad to see ya" there, a pat on the back, a firm grip on the upper arm. His gait is gingerly, disjointed, as if he's not sure all the parts will hold together.
The only business at hand on this day is the annual reading of George Washington's farewell address. It gives a citizen in the gallery a chance to crack to his friend that the senator heard the speech first from the general himself.
Strom Thurmond has probably outlived the fashion for such jokes. He is old, so what else is new? In fact, on Friday, he becomes the oldest person to ever serve in the U.S.
Senate. On that day he surpasses the record of Theodore Green, of Rhode Island, who retired from the Senate when he was 93 years and 93 days old.
Strom Thurmond was born during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Before the Panama Canal was dug. Before the Mexican Revolution, World War I, the Russian Revolution. He became governor of South Carolina the year Bill Clinton first saw light. He is almost half the age of the U.S. Constitution, and like that document, an artifact of America's political history.
To some, he is a reminder of the bad old days in the South, a fossil from the violent reign of Jim Crow. He is the last of the powerful intransigents who tried to prevent one of the great social movements of the century from fulfilling its promise to black Americans. He is a man out of his time, archaic: the Jurassic Senator.
At 93, his skin is the color of old cement; his eyes glow dully beneath descending brows. He has been known to doze, now and then, at committee hearings. But there is life in him yet, and he thinks he knows why.
"I believe exercise and diet and having an optimistic attitude toward life account for it," Mr. Thurmond says.
He does push-ups and sit-ups; he bends and twists, lifts weights and pedals a stationary bicycle. He eats prunes. He swims, he walks. He is the only man in the Senate who has more hair today (thanks to transplants) than he had in 1964. It's darker than it was then, too.
Strom Thurmond likes to define himself by his physicality. He was a high school athletic coach. He landed in Normandy on Day and won five battle stars in World War II. He has married two young beauty queens, each a fraction of his age.
He includes among his accomplishments, in the material his office hands out, those events and incidents that relate to his physical prowess. The time in 1964 when he wrestled a colleague to the floor outside a Senate hearing room. The time in 1957 when he filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against a civil rights bill.
He set a Senate record with that grand, if vain, gesture in obstructionism. But it proved beyond doubt his prodigious staying power. At the end of this Homeric stemwinder, as he came off the floor, one of his staffers, Harry Dent, rushed to the senator with a bucket -- just in case he couldn't make it to the men's room.
"He was insulted," Mr. Dent said. In fact, he went into his office and made phone calls for three hours before discretely heading for the john.
Strom Thurmond has spent 41 years of his life in the Senate; he intends to be around a good deal longer. At a time when a record number of senators are retiring from office, he is running for an eighth term as South Carolina's senior senator. (The "junior" senator, Democrat Fritz Hollings, is 74.) It is expected that he will be opposed next November by a man not yet half his age, Democrat Elliott Close, scion of a textile fortune.
Senator Thurmond is popular in the Palmetto state. He has a reputation for probity and simple living. He always flies coach. And though a lot of the young suburban Republicans who have moved to South Carolina in recent years from places like Ohio and Michigan might be a little ashamed of him, no one at the moment poses a serious threat.
The Storm Age
People in South Carolina are accustomed to thinking of Strom Thurmond as an old man with a future. "The graveyards are full of politicians who were waiting for Thurmond to die," says Dave Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University.
If he wins another six-year term, it will position him to mark up another geriatric achievement next spring: to become the longest serving U.S. senator in history, an honor currently held by the late Carl T. Hayden of Arizona, with 41 years, 10 months of service.
There was a time when Strom Thurmond had grander ambitions than simply staying on, and his actions more consequence. In 1948, as governor of South Carolina, he ran for the presidency as head of the segregationist States' Rights Party. In 1964, he switched to the Republican Party and supported Barry Goldwater's presidential bid. His change of allegiance precipitated the rush of the entire South into the Republican fold.
There is some disagreement over Senator Thurmond's purposes in running again. Why would a man at such an advanced age wish to continue with the kind of workload his job entails?
Some think he simply finds thoughts of retirement unappealing, with its tedium of rocking chairs and flies buzzing on back porches. Politics and public service, they say, animate him.
"He is consumed by politics. It is his life, his blood. He doesn't have anything else as fulfilling," says Nadine Cohodas, who wrote "Strom Thurmond & the Politics of Southern Change."
Then there are those who think that absorption in politics deflects his mind from the tragedy at the center of his life: the April 1993 death of his 22-year-old daughter Nancy, killed in Columbia, S.C., by a drunk driver.
"I had him on my show, and I asked him about his daughter," says Armstrong Williams, a talk show host and longtime friend. "He cried. He cried on the show. It was sad, man."
A father at 68
Strom Thurmond became a father for the first time at age 68, when his 22-year-old wife Nancy Moore gave birth to the first of his four children. (His first wife, Jean, died in 1960.) Within a few years, at an age when most men are doddering granddads, he had a large, new family.
Those were good years for him. In fact, his wife and his children, young as they were, helped him turn back the only serious challenge he had faced in decades, the 1978 race against Democrat Charles Ravenal. They campaigned for him, carried signs, were always there.
Then, he turned around and it was all gone. He separated from his wife in 1991. Two years later his daughter Nancy was dead. His other children grew, moved away. Strom Thurmond was left with his work, and not much else.
The senator explains his purposes more pragmatically. His ideas are back in fashion: "I have been here for 40 years and the Democrats have had charge of this government for all that time. Now, the Republicans have taken over and we got things to do. We've got to pass a defense budget, balance the budget, stop these immigrants.
"All these years I have stood for these things, but we were unable to put them over. But now that we can, I'm anxious to have a part in it."
There are those -- and not only Democrats -- who tried to deny him that pleasure. After the Republican sweep in the 1994 congressional elections, as Senator Thurmond was poised to assume the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a few of the GOP's Senate mandarins tried to snatch that prize away from him.
They aimed to do what Lyndon Johnson had done to Theodore Green more than 30 years ago, persuade him to accept "emeritus" status on the committee, thus diverting the real power into their hands. The plot was allegedly hatched by GOP Sens. Trent Lott, of Mississippi, and John Warner, of Virginia.
But Senator Thurmond proved tougher. He was able to defeat the maneuver with the help of a powerful, "younger" colleague, the new majority leader, Sen. Bob Dole, 72. He returned the favor last week by campaigning for Mr. Dole in the South Carolina primary.
For many years, Strom Thurmond was an easy target for political satirists and late-night talk show hosts. This was especially true in 1991 when he was the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee during its famous hearings on Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. At the time, the senator's hair transplants weren't working out so well, and the dye he used on what new growth there was had an apricot hue.
But the ascendancy of the Republicans in Congress has made Strom Thurmond important again. This new status raises the question of whether he is a different man than he was in the days when he raged against federal civil rights actions. The answer depends on whom you talk to.
Armstrong Williams, who is black, says that time has rehabilitated his mentor. "He got a chance to see the world, that he had a distorted view of the world," he says.
To Mr. Williams, Senator Thurmond's rehabilitation was confirmed by the recognition granted him last year at an awards dinner by the Washington Chapter of the National Urban League.
The award by the civil rights group provoked a storm of protest among black people.
"The only rehabilitation of Strom Thurmond has been a forced rehabilitation," says Joseph E. Madison, a board member of the NAACP. "What changed Strom Thurmond was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. What happened was a realization that the very people he needed to survive, black people, now had the power of the vote over him."
Mr. Madison seethes because the South Carolinian has never apologized for his resistance to the civil rights movement.
For his part, Senator Thurmond says he hasn't apologized because he doesn't think he was wrong. "It was my duty [as Governor of South Carolina] to enforce segregation laws," he says. "After the laws changed, I changed."
And his resistance, the senator insists, was exercised on behalf fTC the principle of states' rights. It did not reflect animosity toward blacks.
"I've always helped black people," he says. "I appointed the first black to the Senate staff in a hundred years. I voted for the last civil rights bill that came up."
He also supported the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Those moves have paid off. Professor Woodard of Clemson says that in past elections as many as 20 percent of South Carolina's blacks voted for Strom Thurmond. Considering that blacks tend to vote near 98 percent for Democrats in the South, that is an impressive showing.
Why would blacks vote for a man with a record like Strom Thurmond's?
"The awareness that he is likely to win, and it is better to deal with the devil you know," says Professor Woodard.
So if he wins re-election, would Senator Thurmond expect to serve the full six years of another term? He, of course, says yes, but friends have a different expectation.
"He wants to die in office," says Mr. Williams. "He doesn't want to imagine life without politics and the Senate. If he loses [the election], he won't last long."