As Joseph Crespino approaches the end of this biography of Strom Thurmond, he shows signs of softening toward the senator from South Carolina known primarily during his long career for racism, cynicism, opportunism, hypocrisy and ruthlessness. “Thurmond’s courteousness became part of his legend,” he writes. “His staff adored him for his quirky, old-fashioned manners.” He quotes someone who worked with Thurmond during the 1990s: “I didn’t know the Strom Thurmond from the 1940s. The Strom Thurmond I knew was warm, inspiring, smart, kind, a demanding boss, and the last gentleman I think I’ve known in my life.” Just when you think Crespino has gone gaga, he closes by reminding us of the “racially charged” politics that characterized Thurmond’s career and of the younger Southern Republicans who adapted it as part of their party’s swing to the far, hard right.
Thus Crespino returns in the end to the theme he sets forth in the beginning: that Thurmond is a far more important figure in the development of the modern Republican Party and the Southern strategy that had so much to do with it than is commonly conceded. If he was “one of the last of the Jim Crow demagogues,” he was also “one of the first post-World War II Sunbelt conservatives,” who went beyond race to embrace “Cold War anticommunism, antilabor politics, conservative religious beliefs and opposition to liberal church groups, criticism of judicial activism, and hyper-militarism.” Thurmond, Crespino argues, “is left out of not only Sunbelt history but also the history of conservatism more generally.” The “foundational figures” are assumed to be Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, yet: