Good Old Boys
The Complicated Personal and Political Life of
By Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson
PublicAffairs. 415 pp. $27.50
HERE'S WHERE I STAND: A Memoir
By Jesse Helms
Random House. 317 pp. $25.95
Even in his second century of life, the late Strom Thurmond was the center of controversy. On December 5, 2001, at a gala party on Capitol Hill celebrating Thurmond's 100th birthday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi paid tribute to the long-serving South Carolina senator, who had been the presidential candidate of the segregationist States' Rights Democrats in 1948. "I want to say this about my state," Lott declared. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either." Lott's remarks created a firestorm that ended only when he resigned as majority leader.
In telling the story of their fellow South Carolinian, Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson show how the South helped to shape modern America by shaping Thurmond. In 1947, the New York Times had published an editorial entitled "Strom Thurmond, Hope of the South," praising South Carolina's then governor for his progressive programs. But when President Truman committed the United States to civil rights in 1948, Thurmond led the Southern segregationists who walked out of the Democratic Convention and formed the so-called Dixiecrats. Accepting their presidential nomination in July 1948, Thurmond declared that "there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to . . . admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches." Before Alabama's George Wallace, Bass and Thompson write, "no one symbolized resistance to civil rights for African Americans more than Thurmond. In the Senate, the former Dixiecrat set a filibuster record when speaking against the 1957 Civil Rights Act." Indeed, Thurmond broke a lot of records; by the time of his death, shortly after having retired from the Senate at the age of 100, he had become both the oldest and the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.
Thurmond's libido made his life complicated indeed. According to Bass and Thompson, Thurmond was romantically involved with Sue Logue, the first woman ever sent to the electric chair in South Carolina, who played a role in a murderous family feud. In 1968, the 67-year-old widower married his second wife, a 22-year-old former Miss South Carolina. In his nineties, he would impress visitors by doing push-ups in his Senate office.
Unknown to almost everyone, the symbol of Southern racism had a black daughter. Six months after his death on June 26, 2003, a 78-year-old African American woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams held a press conference in which she revealed, "My father's name was James Strom Thurmond" -- a fact that Thurmond's family confirmed. Her mother -- Carrie Butler, then a 16-year-old maid in his parents' household -- had been impregnated by the 22-year-old Thurmond at a time when "miscegenation" was illegal under South Carolina law. According to Armstrong Williams, a black conservative whom Thurmond patronized late in life, " 'When a man brings a child into the world, he should take care of the child,' said Thurmond, who then added, 'She'll never say anything and neither will you -- not while I'm alive.' " Thurmond made payments to her throughout her life but left her completely out of his will, which, according to Bass and Thompson, "set up generous trust accounts for his children, Strom Jr., Paul, and Julia, splitting up his real estate holdings in Aken and Union counties and other assets. Around the same time, in 1998, he stopped making payments to Essie. He set aside $30,000 that she would receive over the next three years as her legacy." Exactly one year after his funeral, the name "Essie Mae" was added to the list of Thurmond's children on the pedestal of the statue of Thurmond on the grounds of the Columbia, S.C., statehouse.
Like Thurmond, Jesse Helms, a fellow Republican who served as a senator from North Carolina from 1973 until 2003, symbolized the white Southern backlash against racial integration and social liberalism. Helms gained a political following in the 1960s as a commentator on Raleigh's WRAL-TV and the Tobacco Radio Network with his denunciations of the civil rights movement, liberalism and communism. As a senator, he explained that he voted against Roberta Achtenberg, President Clinton's nominee for a Housing and Urban Development position, "because she's a damn lesbian." When Helms encountered protesters during a visit to Mexico in 1986, he remarked: "All Latins are volatile people. Hence, I was not surprised at the volatile reaction." In 1990, Helms stayed away in protest when Nelson Mandela addressed a joint session of Congress.
You would never know any of this from Helms's bland new memoir, which passes in silence over the Dixiecrats in 1948 and the civil rights revolution. His first mention of his opposition to liberalism involves the cost of President Johnson's "Model Cities" program. Helms consistently leaves out any mention of race and civil rights from his rants against liberal policies, such as "school prayer, spending the people's money on obscenities, killing unborn children, raising taxes, giving aid to our country's enemies, protecting the Boy Scouts, and an end to a self-perpetuating welfare system, and so on and so on." In a book padded out by gentlemanly tributes to his staff and other politicians, the only discussion of race is squeezed into seven pages in a chapter entitled "Race Relations." Unlike Thurmond and Wallace, who reached out to black voters later in their careers, Helms has no regrets. In his old age, Thurmond voted for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.; Helms voted against. Defending his vote, Helms explains, "I have never stated and do not believe that Dr. King was a Communist" but then argues for guilt by association because some of King's advisers were former communists. He is no more repentant on wider issues. "I did not advocate segregation, and I did not advocate aggravation," Helms writes. "I believed right would prevail as people followed their consciences." He does not explain how people could follow their consciences in states in which the law banned racial intermarriage and required segregated public schools and universities.
Ultimately, Helms is a minor figure. But Thurmond will be remembered, along with Wallace, in connection with the regional realignment that has made Southern and Southwestern conservatives the dominant force in the federal government. Bass and Thompson make a persuasive case that Thurmond was one of the most influential American politicians of the 20th century. "Thurmond's political legacy is found not in the annals of legislative achievement but in his pivotal role in reshaping America's political culture," Bass and Thompson write. By winning the electoral votes of four Deep South states as the Dixiecrats' presidential candidate in 1948 and then becoming a Republican in 1964 to campaign for Barry Goldwater, Thurmond began the process by which white conservatives in the former Confederacy first joined and then took over what had once been the party of Lincoln. Bass and Thompson give Thurmond credit for helping Nixon win in 1968 by "thwarting Alabama Governor George Wallace's third-party drive." Southern conservatism could never be reduced solely to racist attitudes, which in the South, as elsewhere, are declining over time. The enduring legacy of politicians like Thurmond, Wallace and Helms may be a distinctively Southern style of cultural politics, transplanted to national politics as a whole. ·
Michael Lind is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. His most recent book is "What Lincoln Believed."