World News

The truth about a Southern legend

November 6 1978
World News

The truth about a Southern legend

November 6 1978

The truth about a Southern legend

United States

In Maclean’s continuing coverage of the U.S. midterm elections, Washington Bureau Chief William Lowther last week travelled the South. His report:

Senator Strom Thurmond is a living legend. He can prove it. He asked people to confirm precisely that fact in a supremely arrogant poll recently taken in his home state of South Carolina and 74.9 per cent of those consulted answered “yes.” Nevertheless, he is something of a disappointment to behold, and a scare to study. For his legendary distinction seems to stem from the school of another grand old Southern character, Brer Rabbit. They share not just a stunning lack of modesty, but also a wealth of guile.

The story of “01’ Strom,” as he is known, parallels and illuminates the emergence of the Old South into the socalled New South. He and it were forced to change their racist image, if not their nature, just to survive. Now, at 75, the ultra-conservative Thurmond is making his last political stand in America’s midterm voting on Nov. 7 before retiring. He will almost certainly win, which only proves that if deep Dixie has come a long way it still has far to go.

Southern politicians tend to be colorful, outrageous and conservative. In all of these categories Thurmond is a champion. To watch him operate is to see a carnivorous magnolia. We are in the lobby of a small hotel just southeast of the Great Smoky Mountains. He

shakes hands with everything that looks human. A tailor’s dummy couldn’t get past Strom Thurmond’. Years ago, when he was a lawyer, he used to shake hands with the jury before a trial.

He has voted on the losing side of almost every major issue to pass

through the Senate for more than two decades. He opposed all civil rights legislation, all defence cuts, all labor protection bills and all welfare laws. In so doing he has projected himself as the “Spirit of the South”—fiercely independent and full of pride. “Yeh, sure I’ll vote for Strom,” said a middle-aged textile worker, “he stands up for what he believes in, even if it’s wrong.”

Should Thurmond be re-elected for a fifth term, he will be 81 by the end of his spell in office. Yet there is no “senility” issue. Twelve years ago, at 63, he married the then-reigning Miss South Carolina who was 22. They now have four children, the youngest just two years old, and he remains a physical fitness addict. His bright beady eyes and weather-red face reflect good health. A few yeats ago he had a hair transplant and that has kept him looking younger. Last week he invited photographers to his son’s birthday party, staged at a local firehall. To demonstrate his agility the senator slid down the fireman’s pole—three times. He kept repeating the performance to make absolutely sure that no one missed the picture.

South Carolina has more poverty, illiteracy and hunger than almost any other state. Nearly 18 per cent of the houses still have no plumbing. In 1969 the state’s other senator, Ernest Hollings, gained national attention by testifying that he had discovered “substantial hunger” among black families. He said there were black children infested with intestinal parasites and that he had met parents who stayed up at night to protect their children from rats. Thurmond responded that it was all a Democratic campaign to get black votes and that “friends” had told him there was no great problem. There had always been those who didn’t want to work.

From this long-established attitude Thurmond quite suddenly switched in 1970, when the New South was born with the election in Florida of Governor Reubin Askew, in Arkansas of Dale Bumpers and in Georgia of Jimmy Carter-all anti-segregation liberals. The writing was on the wall and Thurmond knew how to read it. He began to hire black staff, to secure grants for black schools, to get special projects for black residential areas. He now denies that he was ever a segregationist: “We have had a lot of changes in the last 30 years since I was governor . . . but there’s been no change in my heart. I’ve always felt kindly toward the black people. But when you’re a public office holder you have to live by the law.”

The senator is opposed by a classic New South politician, the handsome and articulate Charles D. “Pug” Ravenel, 40. He is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, “smart, ambitious, ag-

gressive, sophisticated and faintly liberal.” A Harvard Business School graduate—mentioned for all-American football honors—Ravenel made a fortune as an investment banker before returning to his native South and a political career. He was personally persuaded by President Jimmy Carter to make his challenge. The White House sees him as able to lead South Carolina out of its poverty slump; to provide real job and housing equality for the blacks. But the state’s 30-per-cent black population is low on voter turnout and the polls all indicate that the mass of white workers in the dominant textile industry still supports the old guard.

In neighboring North Carolina, normally ablaze with autumn colors at this time of year but now looking drab as the result of an unseasonable drought, the conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms is also likely to be re-elected. Helms, who led the effort that nearly sank the Panama Canal treaties, is spending an incredible $6 million on his campaign against a politically unknown

Democrat, John R. Ingram, who has a budget of $300,000. In Virginia, Republican candidate John Warner—his major claim to fame these days is that he is married to Elizabeth Taylor—is favored to win; and in Texas a powerful Republican Senator John Tower is fighting off Democrat representative Bob Krueger.

Few other personalities catch the eye. But one striking feature of this election is that for the first time, all across the South, ballots list the names of candidates with degrees from Harvard, Yale and other eastern citadels of culture and education. For some scholars and politicians, these candidacies signal a decline in the prejudice, xenophobia and anti-intellectualism that once made it difficult for anyone who was “different,” or by birth or education an “outsider,” to run for office.

That doesn’t mean the Ivy Leaguers will be elected this time. But it may point to changes of real substance for the future. William D. Barnard, a University of Alabama political historian, has his own theory. He says: “As a region and a people we always have had the sneaking suspicion that people in other parts of the country looked down on us and that we weren’t as smart and cultured as they were. That’s why we responded when somebody like George Wallace came along and told us we were as good and as cultured and as smart as people anywhere. Now, these new politicians with degrees from schools like Harvard are coming along and we see them as what we would like to be and what we would like our children to be.”

Governor George Wallace of Alabama used to gain votes by railing against “pointy-headed intellectuals.” He is retiring this year and the “pointies” may take his place. But as Thurmond—who got his degree at a local night school—has demonstrated so well, it is sometimes better to be rightwing and wrong than left-wing and right in the South.