On Political Books

September/October 2012 A Malevolent Forrest Gump

Strom Thurmond's loathsomeness on race obscures his larger role: he was there at all the major choke points of modern conservative history.

By Michael O'Donnell

The party switch reflected the shifting allegiances of southern whites, but also revealed Thurmond’s expedient side. Facing the prospect of a Democratic primary challenge in 1966, Thurmond realized that years of infidelity to his party might finally cost him his Senate seat. And if he stayed Democratic and won, party leaders might punish him for supporting Goldwater by stripping him of his committee assignments. Despite his carefully cultivated image as the last southern man, all backbone and principle, Thurmond throughout his career sold out in spectacular moments of cravenness. His calculated decision to back Nixon over George Wallace in 1968 was another of those moments. Thurmond archly defended the move based on fidelity to his party. In truth, he figured Wallace for an also-ran from the beginning, and recognized that an alliance with Nixon meant real proximity to power. The existence and extent of an agreement or “understanding” between Thurmond and Nixon as the price of the former’s support is one of the enduring political narratives of the 1968 election.

Crespino is especially astute in discussing the way Thurmond’s overt racism fused with Nixon’s politics of white resentment to solidify the modern Republican coalition. Conservatives began dealing in dog whistles rather than water cannons. Crespino writes,

There were still millions of Americans who … felt queasy over hearing the issue of law and order so baldly put in Strom Thurmond’s southern accent. The old Dixiecrat seemed to be ventriloquizing ancient southern fear mongering about lawless black men. Yet the turmoil in American politics and in cities across the country over the past several years cast Thurmond in a strange new light. Amid such frustrations, a significant number of white Americans wound up empathizing with fears and resentments that Thurmond had been channeling for more than two decades.

In the 1970s and ’80s Thurmond nimbly repositioned himself yet again, uttering fewer racist statements and even voting to create the federal Martin Luther King holiday. “The humorless segregationist firebrand was slowly giving way to the quirky, age-defying senator in jogging shorts,” Crespino writes. Yet in the book’s most fascinating pages, Crespino reveals this harmless image to be yet another cynical pose. Aware of the changing times, Thurmond took steps to insulate himself against a black electorate that was not inclined to forget his comments about “the nigger race.” He grandly hired a black staff member and pushed the nomination of a black judge for the U.S. district court in South Carolina. He ostentatiously accompanied his daughter to her first day at an integrated public school — only to move her to a private school in Virginia once he was safely reelected in 1978. Crespino cites staff memos from Thurmond’s political advisers showing these moves to be nothing more than strategic efforts to suppress turnout among black voters. He was a Dixiecrat to the end.

Strom Thurmond’s America is a timely reminder of how easily bigotry can exploit and pervert electoral politics. Today’s intolerance — anti-Muslim invective, birther conspiracies, xenophobia — is not the same as Thurmond’s: overt racism is not nearly as prevalent. Some of the credit for this progress belongs to the many Republicans who have honorably worked to overcome their party’s legacy. Yet it is hard to deny that the voices of intolerance have gotten louder during the tenure of our first black president. Prominent Republicans openly use racial dog whistles and aggressively push policies like voter ID laws that disproportionately impede poor African Americans from voting. Thurmond’s taint, it would seem, is as thick as blood. It will take generations to wear off.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.


  • Gzoref on August 28, 2012 10:42 PM:

    "Thurmonds taint...is as thick as blood."

    Michael O'Donnell - The Washington Monthly

    Nice little blurb for the book jacket :)

  • gubbish on September 09, 2012 7:13 AM:

    Crespino: "Yet the turmoil in American politics and in cities across the country over the past several years cast Thurmond in a strange new light."

    O'Donnell, could you spell out what that turmoil was for the younger readers?

  • Jon on September 09, 2012 8:24 AM:

    George Romney may have been horrified by Strom Thurmond but it's unlikely he'd have worried Mitt that much. He died too soon, really; shame he wasn't around to see the GOP become the party of a twisted version of the Confederacy - the South truly has risen again!

  • Mike on September 09, 2012 9:47 AM:

    Jon: Nice spin comment. You can speculate all you want, but why don't you ask Mitt Romney instead.

    I would posit there are reactionarys in the Democratic Party that lean to the opposite extreme precisely because of Thurmond. Extremism causes extremism. Both political parties can lay claim to extreme elements in their parties at this moment; and both can look to the legacy of not only Thurmond but others. One man did not do all this.

  • ifthethunderdontgetya on September 09, 2012 2:45 PM:

    What's the opposite extreme, Mike?

    Too much equality?

  • martin on September 19, 2012 9:15 AM:

    The SC state capitol bldg in Columbia has a statue of a young (50ish) Strom Thurmond striding vigorously somewhere. The plaque on the statue recites a number of his accomplishments, including the number of children. At some point, the original number was obviously chiseled out and updated. A permanent reminder of what a lying sack o crap he was.

  • Marnie on September 19, 2012 9:59 AM:

    I believe Strom was also the man who publicly declared that our military should assassinate Clinton.

  • martin on September 19, 2012 10:23 AM:

    Jesse Helms, possibly the only elected official worse than Thurmond, warned Clinton to watch himself around the military in NC. I don't think Thurmond went that far. But then, I may have missed it.

  • James on October 09, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Wonderful, insightful review.

    Hard to believe such overt racism was expressed in public by an important Senator not all that long ago.

    The party switch is notable. LBJ said to MLK upon signing the Civil Rights Bill "Martin...there goes the South to the Republicans for the next 50 years". He was spot on.