Thurmond marks 100th birthday
'Patriarch' of Senate honored at Capitol Hill party
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Strom Thurmond, the oldest and longest-serving member of the Senate, turned 100 Thursday, a milestone that underscores a century's worth of political and social change in the South.
The Republican senator from South Carolina, first elected to the Senate in 1954 at the age of 52, is in frail health, but spent the day on Capitol Hill, where he was honored by political luminaries and family members, serenaded by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and learned he would become a grandfather.
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole praised Thurmond as the "patriarch" of the Senate and called him "a man who has honored us through his friendship and his extraordinary example of service."
A highly decorated World War II veteran, former judge, onetime governor, teacher, state legislator and presidential candidate, Thurmond has bridged the South's painful history of segregation and its modern embrace of civil rights.
He abandoned his own long-held segregationist policies -- which included a record 1957 filibuster of more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill -- to later hire black staffers and nominate blacks to high government positions.
His life is marked by a series of firsts and records. He remains the only senator ever to win election on a write-in vote, in 1954. Ten years later, he became the first Southern Democrat to leave the party and join the GOP, presaging a political evolution that gained steam in later years. Years earlier, when he was 41, he landed a glider at Normandy on D-Day, having won a waiver to fight despite being over-age. He had resigned his position as a circuit judge in South Carolina to volunteer for combat duty. He has served 48 years in the Senate, more than any other member.
"God bless you, Strom," President Bush said in a statement. "The nation and I are grateful for your life of service."
His political career included a presidential run in 1948 against President Truman as a "States' Right Democrat." During the 2000 presidential race, when Al Gore invoked the memory of Truman, Thurmond released a statement saying, "Mr. Gore, I knew Harry Truman. I ran against Harry Truman. And Mr. Gore, you're no Harry Truman."
The quip was a twist on celebrated riposte from the 1988 vice presidential debate, when Lloyd Bentsen deflated Dan Quayle's comparison to John Kennedy.
In recent years, Thurmond, who has attained something of legendary status in Washington, has been treated with widespread deference and affection by his colleagues. His segregationist past is rarely mentioned; more often it is his office's attention to constituent service that draws comments.
He is not noted for any particular legislation achievement; it is in his longevity and attention to South Carolina that he made his mark.
A physical fitness buff, Thurmond would sometimes demonstrate exercises in his office for visitors -- doing so even well into his 90s. "They don't call me the Thurmond-ator for nothing," he once declared.
He was 23 year older than his first wife -- a beauty queen who died of cancer -- and 44 years older than his second, another beauty queen from whom he is now separated. He had his first of four children when he was 68.
He relishes his reputation as a ladies man, flirting with women young enough to be his great-grand-daughters.
"I love all of you -- and especially your wives," Thurmond told his colleagues in a November farewell address on the Senate floor. He will return to South Carolina upon his retirement, which will be official once the new Congress convenes next month.
Lee Bandy, a political reporter for The State newspaper in South Carolina, interviewed Thurmond Wednesday. Talking to CNN, Bandy said he asked Thurmond how he would like to be remembered. "He said he would like to be remembered as the South Carolina senator who cared," Bandy said.
For his birthday party, Thurmond left the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he lives, and was feted by senators, Supreme Court justices, family members, friends and staffers. At that party, Thurmond's married daughter told him he would become a grandfather -- with her child due July 4.
He brightened when a buxom Marilyn Monroe impersonator came up to his wheelchair and sang "Happy Birthday." The wheelchair-bound Thurmond reached out to the woman.
"I don't know how to thank you," he told those who came to the party. "You're wonderful people . I appreciate you, appreciate what you've done for me and may God allow you to live a long time."
His hometown of Edgefield, South Carolina, hosted a party as well, celebrating a man whom several colleagues hail as an "institution."
Thurmond and his family are due at the White House Friday, where he will be honored by Bush.