Strom Thurmond turned 99 last month, and they gave him a cake. There were plenty of nice speeches from his fellow senators, and the newspaper reports were respectful, even affectionate. Perhaps those reporters are young.
Or perhaps they don't read history, or have forgotten it. Strom Thurmond, the senior senator from South Carolina, is one of the most detestable politicians that the United States has ever produced. A racist bigot, he may never have actually donned the white hood and cloak, but he committed the legislative equivalent for decades.
That he remains in the Senate after all these years says much about the racial chasm that still afflicts American society. It also says something about the voters of South Carolina.
We tend to elongate history, making the past seem more distant than it is. When Mr. Thurmond was first elected as a state senator in 1933, some of the men who voted for him had fought in the Civil War.
They fought for the South. And they still bore the resentments of its defeat, and the humiliation of Reconstruction, and many of them still feared and despised the blacks in their midst. Strom Thurmond was their man.
When Harry Truman insisted that the Democratic Party embrace the cause of civil rights at the 1948 convention, Mr. Thurmond bolted the party and ran for president as an independent. He took the South, but Mr. Truman took the nation.
He fought school desegregation tooth and claw. In 1957, in an attempt to defeat civil-rights legislation, he embarked on the longest filibuster in Senate history: 24 hours 18 minutes. When Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall as the first black justice of the Supreme Court in 1967, Mr. Thurmond tormented him at the confirmation hearing by asking 60 arcane legal questions.
But, by then, his cause was lost. And so, as more and more blacks began exercising their right to vote, Mr. Thurmond retired from the field of racial battle. Like a Nazi who changes into a suit, he began hiring blacks in his office, and supporting their causes. "Times have changed," he would explain. His new tone and, far more important, his impressive fundraising machine and his acumen at dispensing pork, helped to ensure his political survival. It didn't hurt that the good ol' boys of South Carolina knew that, in his heart, he was still one of them.
Racism was not his only deep flaw.
Euphemistically, Mr. Thurmond was referred to as "a ladies' man." In reality, female workers on Capitol Hill knew better than to let themselves get near his predatory hands.
As tributes flowed from other senators on his 99th birthday, a delighted Mr. Thurmond rose from his seat to offer his thanks. "I love all of you men, but you women even more!"
Cute, unless he'd groped you.
He is now decrepit and largely confined to a motorized wheelchair, spending every night at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center, rarely seeing constituents. A Republican since 1964, he still makes it to the floor to cast his vote, though observers say that he often doesn't appear to know what it is he's voting for, or against.
If this seems amusing, consider that, as president pro tem of the Senate during the Clinton administration, he was third in line for the presidency.
We must take care not to judge the past by the standards of the present. Each of us lives in the context of our time. And we must note here that Mr. Thurmond had a distinguished record in the Second World War, landing at Normandy on D-Day at the age of 41.
But we can nonetheless judge, and condemn, Strom Thurmond, because he was a notorious racist even for his own day, and because he still has the temerity to hold the title of U.S. senator.
If he ever recanted his misdeeds, if he ever confessed that his opposition to civil rights had been wrong, that he had fought against a good cause because his own blinkered upbringing had blinded him to the justice of that cause, if he ever apologized, then those words were little noted nor long remembered.
Mr. Thurmond has promised to step down at the end of his term, in 2003. By then, he will have served as a senator for 48 years.
But the very first day was a day too long.
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc