Strom Thurmond is very good at his business, which is winning statewide elections in South Carolina. He has been doing it regularly since V-J Day. In 1948, in the middle of his term as Democratic governor, Thurmond carried South Carolina as the States Rights presidential candidate. Denied the 1954 Democratic nomination for the Senate, he won the race as a write-in. In 1964, he became a Republican so he could help Barry Goldwater win South Carolina against Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, his convention support of Richard Nixon was a decisive blow against Ronald Reagan. Thurmond, who was most recently reelected to the Senate in 1978, could probably carry South Carolina on a laundry ticket.

Matthew Perry was a South Carolina civil rights lawyer, an "inside" agitator.In 1976, he became the first black federal judge from Dixie when the Senate confirmed his appointment to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. Perry's nomination was sponsored and supported by Strom Thurmond. From Jim Crow's presidential nominee to Matthew Perry's nominator tells you something about Thurmond's gift for political survival and even more about recent American political history: the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965; South Carolina has a larger percentage of blacks than every other state but Mississippi.

Like most successful office-seekers, Thurmond possesses an extra olfactory gland that lets him sniff political winds long before the rest of us can. Thurmond could probably tell you who is about to win or lose in every race above the office of library trustee in Darlington. The slightest scent of defeat is instantly detectable to winning politicians, and Strom Thurmond has to be top-seed among winning politicians.

After the Iowa caucuses, John Connally had the strong smell of a loser about him. But, last December, Thurmond had endorsed Connally, and in Thurmond's world an endorsement once given is irrevocable. Loyalty is not just an automatic applause line for a Fourth of July speech. Loyalty is what separates you from the political weather vanes who go into cardiac arrest every time the Gallup or Harris numbers change.

So there was Thurmond, 36 hours before South Carolina voters would send Connally back to Houston and Ronald Reagan triumphantly on to Florida, introducing his candidate to a Republican precinct meeting in Mauldin and to the Easley Chamber of Commerce as the "only president tough enough to deal with the Soviets and tough enough to deal with the Congress." Earlier that afternoon during a 10-minute layover between planes in Charlotte, there was Thurmond privately and persuasively selling John Connally to Ronnie Hersey, a 27-year-old airport security guard, as "the best presidential candidate in my lifetime."

There is a special code in the real-life political brotherhood that the Sen. Thurmonds honor and that Hollywood's Joe Tynans never even heard of. In sticking with Connally to the inevitable end, Thurmond sent a message to anyone in politics who had ever put a bumper sticker on a car: "Strom Thurmond does not quit. If Strom Thurmond is with you, he won't cut out when things look bad. And if Strom Thurmond is against you, you know you're in for a fight."

It must come as a terrible disappointment to the Daddy Warbucks conspiracy buffs to see John Connally withdraw from the race. Gestetners all over the country must be quiet this week, with no press releases to be run off charging how the major industrialists and militarists were about to put the big Texan in the White House.

With the presidential field narrowing almost every Tuesday, it's only a matter of hours until we start reading this year's crop of leadership-and-where-did-it-go stories. You know -- the ones full of regrets about how/why we cannot get leaders in business, education and the professions to run for president. What these stories invariably overlook is that running for president, in addition to being very difficult, is also enlisting in an all-volunteer force. You have to want to run; that's the only way you can get there.

Remember your first job? Odds are that you figured your salary in hourly wages. Later, you probably started thinking in terms of the weekly paycheck. For some of us, income was eventually measured in monthly installments. The only folks who talked in terms of annual salaries were baseball players and schoolteachers.

No presidential candidate this time out seems to remember those years of measuring life in hourly wages or weekly paychecks. There is much talk about inflation rates and prime interest hikes. But you can travel from New Hampshire to Massachusetts and South Carolina without hearing a candidate talk about the social cost of inflation on familes whose fortunes rise and fall with overtime.

There is little mention made on the campaign circuit of the factory worker who, when Gerald Ford was in the White House, was earning $5.50 an hour and knew that his family's life would be ideal if he could only earn another $2 an hour. Well, today he is and it isn't. Chances are his own life is worse and his wife is now a waitress at some truck stop where she is the object of remarks that make her blush and would make him boil -- if he weren't home baby-sitting while she's earning the balance due on their utility bill. This wife's working is not an exercise in consciousness-raising or self-discovery. It is not a matter of choice; it is simple survival.

What inflation does is to make us all more self-concerned, more selfish. It tears at the fabric of community and diminishes our concern for those living even more at the margin. Inflation, in a social and political sense, makes all of us more like those tragic people in New York who responded to Kitty Genovese's screams for help by closing their windows. Inflation isolates us. Beyond that, it breaks the social compact with people in their early 60s who have raised their families, paid their bills and put away some savings, which they now discover will just about cover the real estate taxes and food. Inflation does not mean the devaluation of the dollar; it means the destruction of lives.