A Jan. 7 Style article about Republican lobbyist Thad Strom incorrectly summarized an episode of "Seinfeld." In the show, the leftover wedding cake that Elaine ate was from the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (Published 1/10/03)
Thad Strom wanted to do something nice for a man he reveres. He planned a big party to mark the 100th birthday of his longtime boss, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Yes, that party.
He labored over details: the banana ice cream (Thurmond's favorite), the video tribute, the Marilyn Monroe impersonator who sang "Happy Birthday to You." About 500 guests attended the celebration in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, which went off splendidly -- with one exception.
"In a vacuum, I must say, I thought the event went well," says Strom, 44, who now works as a Republican lobbyist. But no one will remember his special touches, the chocolate-covered strawberries, the 100-candle cake and the moving speeches from Thurmond's three children. No one will recall anything but Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, then the highest-ranking senator in the Republican Party and the person who determined how everyone will remember this birthday party for all time:
"I want to say this about my state. 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 all these years, either."
"You take that one line out, and we had a fine event," says Strom. It's a classic "other than that, Mrs. Lincoln" declaration, and the humor of it doesn't escape him. "I'm guessing that 10 years from now, when people mention that party, they won't mention the food," he says. He regrets aloud that he did not keep a piece of birthday cake and freeze it for posterity. This, he says, recalls a "Seinfeld" episode in which Elaine's boss had a piece of JFK and Jackie's wedding cake in the freezer until Elaine ate it.
Strom is an unwitting but essential player in this Washington scandal's narrative. Without him, Lott might never have spoken his fateful words, might never have been accused of endorsing Thurmond's segregationist past, and might still have his job as majority leader.
Strom speaks slowly and picks his words carefully, as you'd expect. He says he has no regrets about hosting the party, only about the fallout from Lott's remarks. Have any other senators asked Strom to plan their birthday parties? "Uhh, no," he says.
In his non-footnote-to-history life, Thad Strom is a rumpled, athletic and genial bachelor who lives in a townhouse in Rosslyn. He seems to know and greet everyone -- the police officers, the cafeteria workers -- during his frequent visits to Capitol Hill. "All he wanted to do was put together a nice party for Senator Thurmond," says Mike Tongour, a close friend and former colleague of Strom's who attended the party.
Strom keeps a box of leftover party favors in the corner of his office on Pennsylvania Avenue. They are commemorative gavels that were distributed to each guest at the Dec. 5 party. Now they are collector's items, which Strom gives to office visitors with the warning "I better not see these damn things on eBay."
Strom's office is a shrine to Strom Thurmond, the longest-serving member of the Senate ever. There are several autographed photos of his longtime boss and lifetime idol. One features Thurmond whacking Strom on the butt with a wooden paddle. The photo is inscribed, "Best wishes to naughty Thad Strom." (There's a story behind this, but never mind.)
Thad Strom and Strom Thurmond are distant cousins -- Thurmond's mother's maiden name was Strom. Both come from the small town of Edgefield, S.C. Strom began working for Thurmond in 1975, before he entered Clemson University, and the job continued during summers while he was in law school at the University of South Carolina. He worked for Thurmond in a number of jobs in his Senate office, on his campaigns and on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He began as a messenger and spent his later years as chief counsel and staff director on the Judiciary Committee.
Strom left Capitol Hill in 1997 but has remained close to Thurmond.
He visits the senator three or four times a week at his residence at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "Thad has been an incredibly loyal friend to the senator," says Manus Cooney, a former Judiciary Committee colleague. "He's the guy who goes over there, sits with him and takes him to dinner when no one else is around."
In October, Strom volunteered to organize Thurmond's centennial bash. He called Bob Dole, who agreed to co-sponsor the event. It was determined that Dole would give a speech, as would Strom and Thurmond's three children. Strom also asked Lott to speak, but had second thoughts. "I thought I had too many men in suits," Strom said. He considered asking Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to speak instead, "to bring some diversity to the program." But in the end, he stuck with Lott, and history tipped.
When Lott said what he said, Strom thought to himself that people might misconstrue the remark if it was removed from what he calls its "lighthearted context."
At a charity function the next night, Friday, Strom ran into Ralph Neas, the president of the liberal People for the American Way, who told him he'd spoken to a reporter who was writing an article about Lott's statement for Saturday's newspaper. That was Strom's first inkling that the Mississippi senator's comments had kindled what would become a firestorm.
Strom says that Dole used some of the material that Lott planned to use. "So Lott reached back to what he's said before about Senator Thurmond in other settings." He says Lott's intent was benign but his words were offensive. "I don't think he woke up that morning and said, 'Honey, Senator Thurmond turns 100 today. It's a great opportunity for me to wax nostalgic about segregation.' It just didn't happen that way."
Thurmond, who does not give interviews and has visibly slowed in recent years, is fully aware of the controversy, Strom says. Strom says the senator placed a call to Lott last month, but did not get through.
Strom has had no contact with Lott since Dec. 5, either. But he has pictures from the party, including some of Lott at the podium. He's debating whether to send them to Lott's office. He shakes his head. He'll put them in a scrapbook or something. Live and learn.
"I doubt I'll ask Lott to speak at Thurmond's 101st," he says.