MARION, S.C. -- The senator stands behind a podium perched atop a stage in a cavernous gymnasium jammed with black voters. He has just mispronounced the name of the guest of honor. Quiet, derisive laughter sweeps through the room.

"Opera Winfrey?" people whisper to each other. "Opera Winfrey!"

Had the leaders of the civil rights movement tried to imagine the private hell that God devised for Strom Thurmond, they might have envisioned a scene like this one. Only the room would have no exit and the laughter would never end.

Forty years ago, as a maverick presidential candidate, Thurmond stood before audiences whiter than this one is black, and promised that segregation would last forever, that "all the laws of Washington, and all the bayonets of the Army, cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation."

The senator has eaten platefuls of Jim Crow since the Dixiecrats died. He has appointed black staff members and established scholarships at black colleges. The rushing waters of history have worn him down -- that much is obvious. What is less well understood is how the 85-year-old Thurmond, in his rocklike opposition, has changed the course and composition of the stream.

The nature of his achievement is evident in the polls that detail George Bush's lead in the Electoral College and on maps that show that the once solidly Democratic South has, for a generation, been solidly Republican.

"He played the key and strategic role in pioneering and paving the way for that change," says Harry Dent, the Thurmond adviser who became deputy counsel to Richard Nixon. "Presidential politics have been changed by Strom Thurmond and what he did more than by anybody in this country in these recent years."

In the process Thurmond has transformed his own image from radical to pragmatist, from The Whitest Man in America to Uncle Strom, Our Friend in Washington. It is in the latter role that he takes the stage at the jam-packed James S. Williams Memorial Scholarship Fundraiser.

The event, sponsored by a prominent black Republican family, is rich in symbolism, an image-maker's dream. But the scene in this gymnasium notwithstanding, the central theme of Thurmond's career is not change, it is constancy, an enduring allegiance to states' rights, militarism and strict law enforcement.

Even his tactical retreat on segregation has brought a strategic victory. By surrendering their most objectionable goal, Southern conservatives, like Thurmond, broadened their appeal without alienating their original supporters. They also made it exceedingly difficult to campaign for the black vote and still win a national election.

Thurmond speaks almost dismissively today about the era when his whiteness was the essence of his public persona.

"You see down south all the states had laws providing for separation of the races and all the governors held up their hands to support the laws and there was no trouble about it," he says. "Everybody followed that practice until the Supreme Court struck it down in Brown v. Board of Education. But since then, the South has had less trouble than any part of the country ... We've had no trouble down south."

There are those who see it differently; and remember it differently, too, wondering how much of the past can be erased by the well-aimed gestures and easily worked acts of charity.

"The climate he created in this state was one in which people were killed, people were injured, and people were injured financially," says William Gibson, a South Carolinian who is chairman of the national board of the NAACP.

Or, in the words of Modjeska Simkins, the 88-year-old matriarch of the state's civil rights movement: "The blood is on the ground."

Strom's World

The past is never over. It isn't even past.

William Faulkner, "Intruder in the Dust"

Racial prejudice and political belligerence are entwined like a single sinuous root burrowed deep in the soil of Edgefield County, Thurmond's birthplace. Preston Brooks, the cane-swinging congressman who nearly beat an abolitionist senator to death, hailed from Edgefield. So did Chancellor Wardlaw, who wrote South Carolina's ordinance of secession.

"My grandfather was in the Civil War, George Washington Thurmond," the senator says. "He was with Lee at Appomattox when he surrendered to Grant. He was in the Civil War, the Mexican War and the Indian Wars. Wherever there was fighting he was there. Heh heh."

Thurmond's father, Judge J. William Thurmond, was a political ally and personal friend of perhaps the most radical of the state's racist populists, the legendary "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman. Strom Thurmond still remembers his first trip to Tillman's farm in 1912 when he was 9.

"My father told me to go up there and shake hands with him," he says. "When we got there I went up and put out my hand. He was a very profane old fella. He said, 'What in the hell do you want?' Enough to scare a young boy to death.

"I said, 'I want to shake hands with you.' And he took my hand and he said, 'What do you want to do? Shake hands? Well why in the hell don't you shake then?'

"I started shaking and I've been shaking hands ever since."

Thurmond's voice -- nasal, high-pitched -- sounds very much as it does on tapes made four decades ago at the Dixiecrat convention; his laugh, a soft heh heh, has about it a hint of feigned surprise. The senator walks with an impressive vigor although his upper body seems to be slowly curling around a large oval object. His suits are tasteful, his manner courtly. The senator still flirts with young women and is vain enough to have had two almost-successful hair transplants.

The walls of his Washington office are barely visible behind an array of plaques, photos and honorary degrees. He has his national wall, his state wall and his education wall. There is a special place reserved for photos of the senator with the seven presidents whose terms have coincided with his own. On that wall hangs a picture of his father.

"I haven't patterned my life after anybody, except maybe my father," the senator says. "He was always helping people and that's my motto more or less. Helping people."

Thurmond is an odd amalgam of American political types: the angry populist as benevolent patrician, an outsider fighting to make America safe for oligarchy. He interprets the Constitution as literally as fundamentalist Christians interpret the Bible. But his paradise does not loom in the millennial distance, it recedes in the not-so-distant past. It is an inheritance squandered sometime between the Allied victory in World War II and the 1948 Democratic convention.

Thurmond returned from that war a much-decorated hero and entered the gubernatorial race. His subsequent victory pitched him into another battle, the one fought to keep power in the hands of belligerent, benevolent men like the ones who shaped his boyhood.

Day of the Dixiecrats

If the Dixiecrats at the time seemed nothing more than a short-lived protest party, they appear in retrospect to be the forerunners of the Southern conservative movement that would transform American presidential politics.

"In that race I was just trying to protect the rights of the states and the rights of the people," the former presidential candidate says now. "Some in the news media tried to make it a race fight, but it was not that. It was federal power versus state power."

That interpretation, even 40 years later, is met with astonishment in some quarters, anger in others.

"Thurmond has the capacity to interpret events and his own involvement in those events in a way that confounds others who may read his speeches or see him in a very different context," says James Banks, a professor of history at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, who is writing a biography of the senator.

"States' rights wasn't the issue," says civil rights activist Joseph Rauh. "Segregation was the issue and everybody knew it."

The plank that drove the Southern Democrats from the party seems osteopathically mild today. It endorsed a black person's right to vote, his right to work and his right not to be lynched or beaten. It advocated desegregating the Army.

"The civil rights program is the most un-American law ever proposed," Thurmond said that fall. "It was borrowed from the Communist, who know well that they can never gain control of America as long as our fundamental rights are preserved to the States."

Throughout the campaign he tried, with mixed results, to keep his rhetoric cooler than his openly racist supporters. One day he would declare that he was "not interested one whit in the question of white supremacy." On another he would raise the specter of Southern whites being forced to entertain blacks in their "living rooms" and "swimming pools."

This appeal won him four Southern states and 39 electoral votes -- a showing considerably better than those of, say, George McGovern in 1972 or Walter Mondale in 1984.

That achievement was not much remarked on in the wake of Truman's upset victory and the Dixiecrats' return to the party. But, looking back, the senator sees the race as the first step in the South's liberation from the social engineering of Democratic liberals.

"After the Civil War, the War Between the States, the South was under military occupation from 1866 to 1876," he says. "And all the people were Democrats because it was the Republicans who were in power when the federal government treated the South that way.

"Then when I ran, they voted for me. And the sky didn't fall because they didn't vote for the Democratic Party. So people began to see that they could vote in the way their conscience directed. That was really the race that emancipated people from the Democratic Party."

Breaking Away

Actually 1948 was only a dress rehersal for 1964, the year the Republicans took their first steps toward becoming a national conservative party and Strom Thurmond decided to join them.

On Sept. 16, he went on statewide television in South Carolina to announce an impending apocalypse: "If the American people permit the Democratic Party to return to power, freedom in this country as we know it is doomed."

To forestall this disaster, he planned to support Barry Goldwater in the upcoming election and work to build the Republican Party in the South.

"I didn't put any pressure on people to join me," Thurmond says. "I just told them where the two parties stood and I said the thinking of our people in the South is more in line with the Republican Party and you might as well face it."

Goldwater got trounced, adding only his home state of Arizona to the four Thurmond captured in 1948. But a movement had been born and Thurmond was among its most effective Southern spokesmen.

One reason was his willingness to do favors for the people of his state. "He's not afraid to flex his muscles on constituent services," says Mark Goodin, deputy press secretary for the Bush campaign and Thurmond's former press secretary. "Stuff that would have made other people blush, he would just wade into."

None of the senator's benevolence was evident to supporters of the civil rights movement on whom he kept up a venomous attack. In 1954 he helped draft the Southern Manifesto, which pledged to resist the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling "by all legal means." Three years later he staged the longest single-person filibuster in Senate history (24 hours and 18 minutes) to oppose a fair housing bill.

Looking back on Thurmond's career in this period it is hard to know which of his outbursts to take seriously. At one point he threatened a congressional investigation of Washington bookstores because they weren't stocking a right-wing novel that he liked. On another occasion he chastised the Army for lending outdated equipment to the producers of a film that "glorified Communist guerrillas." The movie was "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Thurmond opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the zenith of the Great Society, one colleague called him "a leaky faucet in an empty house."

But there were millions of alienated voters who admired Thurmond and what he stood for. They were about to play a crucial role in the making of the president. In 1968 and all the years that followed.

The Southern Strategy

"There are four key main issues with the people of the South," Strom Thurmond says. "They're strong for national defense. They're strong for fiscal responsibility. They're strong for support of the family, and they're strong for law enforcement."

For much of his career he preached these virtues in the Senate with an anger that assured his rejection. But in 1968, the senator became a pragmatist. The Democrats had nominated Hubert Humphrey for president, the Republicans were being courted by Nelson Rockefeller. There was no lesser of these two evils.

Thurmond went to the Republican convention in Miami with a simple strategy: to help establish Richard Nixon as the perfect alternative to the undesirable Rockefeller and the unelectable Ronald Reagan. In one closed-door meeting after another he lined up his fellow Southerners behind the former vice president.

"My philosophy was a little more in line with Reagan's than it was Nixon's," he says. "But I wasn't too sure that the people were ready to jump that far. I wasn't too sure that after Goldwater was defeated so decisively being a conservative that Reagan, another conservative, could quite make it. Whereas Nixon was a little more liberal but yet would be so much better. I felt we stood a better chance to elect Nixon."

Meanwhile, he and Harry Dent were outlining what became known as the Southern Strategy, a sophisticated appeal to Southern Democrats on school desegregation and other issues that separated them from their Northern counterparts.

The senator stumped throughout the region with his own organization, Thurmond Speaks for Nixon, pushing what have since come to be known as hot buttons. His task was made all the more difficult by the candidacy of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

"We argued that a vote for George was a vote for Hubert," Dent says. And that logic carried the day: Nixon won 63 electoral votes in the deep and upper South to 45 for Wallace and just 25 for Humphrey.

"That was a model campaign," says Lee Atwater, a Thurmond prote'ge' who is now campaign manager for George Bush.

"I've used that as a blueprint for everything I've done in the South since then."

Keeping the Faith

Those who supposed that political success might somehow soften Strom Thurmond were disabused of that notion with the publication of his 1968 book "The Faith We Have Not Kept." It is a curious volume and what is even more curious is that Thurmond still hands it out.

In its pages the senator voices his admiration for South African and Rhodesian programs to educate "the natives," and attacks the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as "clearly symbolic." He makes passing mention of the Dred Scott decision, claiming it was more legally sound than Brown v. Board of Education.

At one time, that sort of slightly veiled racial appeal was a sure bet to rally the faithful. But in the wake of the Voting Rights Act, even South Carolina was beginning to change. In the 1970 South Carolina gubernatorial race a moderate Democrat defeated a Thurmond-backed Republican who had run so egregiously racist a campaign that members of his own party felt obliged to say so.

The coalition of black and moderate white voters posed a potentially grave threat to Thurmond's 1972 reelection bid and he set out to dismantle it. In an interview that year, Harry Dent said it was time to "get {Thurmond} on the high ground of fairness on the race question," to make him less an ideologue and more "South Carolina's indispensable man in Washington."

It was the dawn of the age of Uncle Strom.

Since few Southern senators had displayed conspicuous bravery in the struggle for civil rights, getting Thurmond to the high ground of fairness proved surprisingly easy. In 1971 he became the first Southern senator to name a black person to his staff. In 1976 he became the first Southern senator to sponsor a black man for a federal judgeship. But it was not until the following year that the issue hit home: Thurmond walked his oldest daughter, Nancy Moore Thurmond, to her first day of school at A.C. Moore Elementary. Half her classmates and nearly half her teachers were black.

Thurmond was wooing blacks the way he had always wooed whites, using personal charm and political influence. He forged a particularly close bond with Armstrong Williams, the son of a prominent black farmer.

The two met 12 years ago at the Dry Dock Seafood House in Marion when Williams' father James, the man for whom the scholarship is named, introduced them after a speech.

"Senator," the 16-year-old said, "all my friends say you are a racist."

Thurmond told Williams that he shouldn't believe everything he heard, that he seemed like a bright young man and that he should send him a re'sume' when he graduated from high school. "Then you can judge for yourself," Thurmond said.

Four years later Williams was working in Thurmond's Washington office. In 1981, the president appointed him to a position in the Department of Agriculture.

Williams and Thurmond have remained friends. In 1983 they attended the Howard versus South Carolina State football game together as part of Thurmond's continuing efforts to attract black voters. Williams remembers Thurmond plunging into the crowd to do a little flesh pressing.

"People said to me, 'Armstrong, I did not want to shake his hand, but you gotta respect the man for coming out here,' " Williams recalls.

Blacks in South Carolina may respect Thurmond, but they don't vote for him. In 1978, the last time he faced serious opposition, Thurmond got just 8 percent of the black vote.

"As a practical matter," says Laughlin McDonald, an Edgefield native who tries civil rights cases for the ACLU, "the black voters in his own state have never forgiven him."

Past and Prologue

Washington is a difficult city in which to keep track of the past. It is not that memories are shorter here, but that politicians re-create themselves, sometimes retroactively, and with such regularity that it becomes too confusing to keep track.

The Whitest Man in America is now one of the Hill's great compromisers. The unpleasant matter of a segregationist past is now ascribed to his lifelong devotion to his own peculiar interpretation of the Constitution. The obstructionist is being recast as a philosopher statesman.

"When you are in disagreement with so many things that Lyndon Johnson wanted to do, you naturally are attacking more," he says. "You are confronting more, don't you see? Now once you get in the chairman's position, or a position of power, then instead of confronting, you want to pull people in all you can."

His causes are not much different -- better bombs, tougher judges. But he's also written legislation to keep former White House officials from lobbying the government. He's authored a crime bill with Ted Kennedy, and a plastic gun ban with Howard Metzenbaum. He was among Joe Biden's first defenders in the wake of plagiarism charges. He's pushing for alcoholic beverages to be labeled a health hazard.

"Times change and people change, and people who can't change don't stay in office long," he says. "You got to meet changing conditions."

But Thurmond still knows where the hot buttons are. Digging into his briefcase, he withdraws a Bush brochure and begins to enumerate the faults of the Democratic presidential nominee. The performance has the feel of a litany, with Thurmond serving as both priest and people.

"Michael Dukakis supports gun control," Thurmond says. "Well, the South believes in owning guns.

"Michael Dukakis did not ban placing foster children with homosexual parents. Well, the Southern people wouldn't believe in putting children with homosexual foster parents.

"Opposes aid to the contras. Well, the Southern people are wholly in favor of supporting the contras.

"Michael Dukakis opposes capital punishment. The Southern people are in favor of capital punishment.

"Michael Dukakis is a card-carrying member of the ACLU. The Southern people are not strong for the ACLU."

But with the Bush campaign nearly over, Thurmond is looking ahead to his own reelection bid in 1990 when he will be 87. "It is my intention to run again if my health is as good as it is now," he says. "And I try to do the things necessary to keep good health, and very few people will."

He is also looking beyond that, to the judgment of time.

"I've always felt kindly toward black people," he says. "I worked down there with them in the cotton fields. I represented them as an attorney whether they could pay or not." He points to his education wall on which hang honorary degrees from every black college in the state, save one. Supporters say his votes in favor or extending the Voting Rights Act and establishing a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. represent his redemption on the race issue.

That doesn't impress his critics. "He had no conversion," says Joe Rauh. "What he's had is a political change. The man has never owned up to how bad he was."

But Strom Thurmond, who says he believes God's hand has guided his life, sees no evil in his own motivations. And all the plaques and photos and honorary degrees, all the thank-you notes and testimonials tell him he must be right.

One senses that Thurmond would like to be judged by the same standards he applies to his father's old friend, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman.

"People today might not agree with some of the positions he took, but you have to consider the time when he lived," the senator says. "He must have done something to be so strong with the people."

He, like Tillman, is strong with the people. And he expects you to find that reassuring.