'Strom Thurmond's America': How the Southern senator 'altered the landscape of American politics'

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If you were partisan before, you'll likely be hyper-partisan after absorbing "Strom Thurmond's America," Joseph Crespino's insightful biography of a crafty Southerner who altered the landscape of American politics.

Thurmond, who came up as a Jim Crow Democrat in his native South Carolina, was a senator who switched parties in 1964, buttressing Barry Goldwater's doomed presidential campaign and effectively inaugurating what came to be known as the GOP's southern strategy. He died at 101 in 2003 after 48 years in the Senate.

By Joseph Crespino
Hill & Wang/Macmillan ($30).

Thurmond made a career of hostility toward labor, African-Americans, the franchise, and any form of the social safety net, particularly the New Deal version. He was a hypocrite, too, fathering a daughter with an African-American teenager who was a servant in his family home, then supporting but never fully acknowledging the daughter.

That act of secrecy, shame and lust (we'll never know if love entered the picture) brackets the book. The epilogue, which is particularly well written, tells of a Thurmond statue blemished by his twisted patronage.

At the peak of his career in the middle to later '60s, Thurmond was a kingmaker, helping guide the far craftier Richard Nixon to victory over Hubert Humphrey. In 1957, he mounted a record-length filibuster in an attempt to block the Civil Rights Act; it ran more than 24 hours and was touted as evidence of his legendary stamina (he was a workout buff).

In 1948, Thurmond ran for president under the States Rights Dixiecrat Party. Although he softened his tone over the years, he was a diehard segregationist who found himself more simpatico with the GOP as civil rights took hold.

During his heyday, Thurmond excoriated war protesters, Communists, African-Americans and labor. Today, he would likely blast the gay rights movement, labor and African-Americans. He'd also surely rail against Hollywood, New York and other bastions of dangerous liberal thought.

He helped forge the "New South," a region hospitable to business whose right-to-work approach discourages unions. Not only did he lure companies to the Sun Belt, but also he made it the foundation of today's GOP.

Mr. Crespino deftly interweaves accounts of Thurmond's relationships with such contemporaries as FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover (who leaked dirt on Communist-affiliated organizations to Thurmond) and Ronald Reagan, whose career "took root" in the "hothouse of law-and-order" politics of the mid-'60s

It is hard to overlook the similarities between Thurmond's political base-white, individualist, exclusionary-and today's Tea Party. Mr. Crespino indicates there's a direct evolutionary line.

An associate professor of history at Emory University, Mr. Crespino is a fine interpreter. His summary of Thurmond's approach toward the Supreme Court -- he scuttled Abe Fortas' nomination and bemoaned the Senate's rejection of Nixon nominees G. Harrold Carswell and Clement Haynsworth -- masterfully ties together complex historical strands. Nixon blasted the Senate for not embracing his "strict constructionist" approach (sound familiar?).

"Since 1948, Southern victimization at the hands of hypocritical liberals had been one of he most consistent themes of Thurmond's career. He had never heard a president speak with such conviction the very words that southern senators and congressmen themselves had used to describe their region's plight. However rocky the relationship would become between the president and Thurmond -- and there would be disappointments to come -- Nixon had built up a reservoir of goodwill that never completely ran dry."

Mr. Crespino doesn't make Thurmond likable, but that's not his goal. His is loftier and more difficult: to get beneath the surface of an influential politician in order to shed light on our times.

electionspresident - bookreviews

Carlo Wolff (carlowolff.com) is a writer and critic living in Cleveland. First Published September 2, 2012 4:00 AM


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