BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nadine Cohodas, author of “Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change,” what got you interested in the subject?
NADINE COHODAS, AUTHOR, "STROM THURMOND AND THE POLITICS OF SOUTHERN CHANGE:" Watching Senator Thurmond up close day after day, week after week, while I was a reporter for Congressional Quarterly.
LAMB: How old is Strom Thurmond?
COHODAS: Senator Thurmond was 90 years old this past December 5th.
LAMB: Somewhere, I think, in your book you said that he's going to run again.
COHODAS: That is the talk. I ended the actual story of this book before he made any firm announcements, but he has certainly been talking that way and people take him seriously down in South Carolina. They have learned over a long period of time that if he says I am ready to go you better get out of the way or be prepared.
LAMB: What's the point of the book?
COHODAS: I think I can sum it up in really two sentences, two themes: to show the power of race to shape politics but also the power of loss to shape behavior. It seems to me that Senator Thurmond's very long career illustrates that.
LAMB: In the material that you read in some of the reviews, they say this may be the first book from a white person's viewpoint on what happened to civil rights.
COHODAS: That is what I intended it to be. There are many, many books, articles, journal pieces about, and understandably so, the dramatic and ennobling stories of black empowerment, but those have been from the point of view of the participant. Senator Thurmond, just like people who are no longer here -- Senator Russell of Georgia, Senator Eastland of Mississippi, Senator Stennis of Mississippi -- were the recipients of that pressure during the civil rights movement. It seemed to me there was something useful to learn by exploring how do these people get in power, what made them get so dug into their social system and what did it take to wrench them -- wrench us -- free?
LAMB: Is this an official biography?
COHODAS: I don't consider it that. I did have Senator Thurmond's cooperation in terms of him granting me interviews for the book, but, as I said in the acknowledgment, I'm appreciative he never once even in our preliminary talks asked to see any portion of the manuscript, and he did not see a copy of the book until I brought it up to his office in the first week in February. None of his aides saw the manuscript; they did talk to me. His papers were made available to me, but they are open to the public. They reside at Clemson University. So I don't consider it an authorized version at all. Cooperation and access, yes. Approval, no.
LAMB: Where are you from?
COHODAS: I am a native Northerner, born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, grew up in Wisconsin and went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. So, good solid Midwestern roots.
LAMB: What was your major in school?
COHODAS: I was both an English and history major in Ann Arbor, but I worked four years on the Michigan Daily and, I think, as much as anything, that was the central fact of my college years.
LAMB: When was the first time you can remember seeing Strom Thurmond in person?
COHODAS: The first time I can remember seeing him in person, I believe, is when I went over to my first Judiciary Committee meeting in the late summer of 1979. I had moved up here from Raleigh, North Carolina, where I worked for the News and Observer to take the beat for Congressional Quarterly that has been available, principally, to someone with a legal background, which I have. I had heard of him when I was growing up, but in traditional Northern terms, that this was an old segregationist who was somebody that we didn't like very much.
So I was kind of anxious to see what does this man look like that I had heard about and also, of course, knowing that when he was rather old he married someone quite a bit younger than he was and had four children -- so the combination of everything. At the time Ted Kennedy was chairman of the committee, so there were two people that I couldn't wait to see in person, hear what they sounded like and talk to them.
LAMB: When was the first time you ever had a lengthy conversation with him?
COHODAS: It would have been sometime during the back end of 1979 or during 1980. I'm sorry to say I don't remember the very first conversation. It would have been in the context of Judiciary Committee matters. When I really started to think more about him as having a fascinating story was 1981, after he became chairman of the Judiciary Committee. As everyone recalls, 1980 not only brought President Reagan to the White House, but the Senate went from Democratic hands to Republicans. And you went from having Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to Strom Thurmond as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and, you know, ideologically, on the surface, you couldn't really get too much different ends of the spectrum.
LAMB: You were in North Carolina for how long?
COHODAS: Nearly seven years, just a bit shy of seven years.
LAMB: Another senator, a Republican by the name of Jesse Helms is from that state. For purposes of our discussion, what's the difference between Southerner Jesse Helms and Southerner Strom Thurmond?
COHODAS: Let me start with what I think is something important, and it has to do with the men's backgrounds. Senator Thurmond has had a 65-year public career. This is a man who loves politics -- who lives, sleeps, eats and breathes it. He ran for his first office when he was 26 years old, superintendent of the Edgefield County schools, state senator, judge, governor, United States senator. His entire life has been out among people as a politician. I don't use that word pejoratively, but listening to people, talking to people, feeding off of that.
If my memory is correct, Senator Helms was a strategist, a first in the political scene in the '50s working on a Senate campaign. He was also a radio broadcaster and then stepped into politics. To me, that's important they have different backgrounds. One who, by the time Senator Helms won for the Senate -- I believe it was 1972 -- Senator Thurmond had been in public life since 1926. That's number one. Number two, based on my observations as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and having written quite a bit about some of the things Senator Helms was involved in and the same with Senator Thurmond and watching him, I've always thought that Senator Thurmond is ideological, yes, strong views, yes, but he is primarily a legislator. This is somebody who, if he wants to get something done, listens to where the other side is. You can do business with him; you can get something done.
The best example, probably, is not the meat and potatoes of this book but his work with Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum, very liberal senator from Ohio, on crime legislation. Senator Helms, I thought, has a different reason that he's here. He is, I think, out more to represent a point of view and to hold to that; if he can attract enough people to it, so be it. If not, he is not as interested in moving to find that center. I would say a third thing, and this has to do with the theme of the book, racial politics. If you look at Senator Thurmond's elections in South Carolina, extraordinarily large margins, and this is after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when you have blacks finally voting in a state with the second largest black population -- I believe Mississippi is the first. And Senator Thurmond is winning, with one exception, with over 60 percent of the vote. Senator Helms has given himself tough elections the last two, three times: Very close and then right at the end he plays, if I may use this term, in my view, the race card much more sharply. He's a more divisive presence than Senator Thurmond, and so those are the things that I think make them different.
LAMB: Some personal things. What do you notice about Senator Thurmond when you're around him? What kind of a person is he to talk to?
COHODAS: Well, enormous vigor, certainly. You know, here he is at 90 years old, and the last time I saw him in person was in October when I went up just to show him what the cover of the book looked like. The interviews that I did with him were rather challenging. He is a very proud individual. He is used to being hammered around because of his actions when he was a very vocal and vehement part of the Southern resistance. So, he's a man with a lot of stories to tell, and the challenge is to ask the right questions, to trigger the right stories.
LAMB: There is a picture in the book of Senator Thurmond standing on his head.
COHODAS: That's right, the famous prenuptial headstand. This is right before his marriage to his first wife, Jean Crouch, who was, at that time, 20, 21 years his junior. She had just graduated from college, and he had seen her and found her attractive, invited her to work in the governor's mansion. A romance blossomed. They announced their engagement, and a lot of titters, etc., but to show, as the caption in Life magazine said, that he was plenty vigorous and virile, he stood on his head.
LAMB: How old was he?
COHODAS: He was just a few months shy of his 47th birthday.
LAMB: Did they have any children?
COHODAS: They did not. And she died, tragically, very young in 1960, I believe, in her early 30s of a brain tumor. A painful experience for him, from all that I can gather.
LAMB: How did they meet? I mean, what were the circumstances?
COHODAS: Her father was a very longtime Democratic Party official in Barnwell County, and Senator Thurmond had gone to see him and noticed the picture on the wall and said, "Who is that lovely looking girl?" and he said, "That's my daughter." And later, when he was governor, he went to Winthrop College, where she happened to be a student, and saw her again, and that reminded him of the picture, as the story in his telling of it goes. He then went back and invited her to come to the governor's mansion to work after graduation. So it was one of those chance -- seeing a picture, seeing the person, being governor, having a job to offer.
LAMB: What impact did she have on his political life with that great difference in age?
COHODAS: There were titters and some letters sent. Some comments rather harsh but, I think, overall she was attractive, very charming. There is a little story about her that's rather poignant, I think, about not fully understanding what she was getting into. After they were married, they came back and had an open house at the governor's mansion, and, after an hour-and-a-half, she had to excuse herself and go upstairs because her hand had swollen from shaking hands. This was not an experienced politician. Another thing that was rather poignant, I found, there was a book that was written largely about her that was very helpful to me, in addition to her papers, which are also at Clemson. In writing her parents that she wanted to marry then Governor Thurmond, she said, among other things, that she knew that he would take very good care of her and they would be very happy and, after all, he would be through being governor in just a few years and then they could move on. And I don't think she fully realized that this was a man as much in love with politics as with other things and that there was a long political career ahead of him.
LAMB: How long was he a governor?
COHODAS: He was governor one term; elected 1946 and served until 1950.
LAMB: And what did he accomplish as governor?
COHODAS: He was actually a very progressive governor, I think, in terms of moving toward a reorganization of government agencies. I have to add that I didn't spend a lot of time in the book on the details of what he did as governor because the most important thing that happened during those years as governor was that in 1948 -- and, if anything, it was a surprise to me in the research; it's what I felt was the inexorable journey from a brand new governor of a relatively small state to someone who was going to be the focal point, the mouthpiece, for the states' rights Democrats, and I think that that is as important a piece of those four years.
I would like to say one thing, though; his inaugural address was quite striking. It was one of the longest ones, if not the longest one, ever given because of the detail, the things that he set out that he wanted to do. He had been interested in education as a state senator, and he repeated that theme as governor and he said directly in his inaugural speech that we must have more money to educate our Negro children, was how he put it, which was the term of art then. I think that is noteworthy for a couple of things: first, his interest in education, secondly, his clearly addressing the separate but equal and making some acknowledgement that equal was not equal.
But, third, it was still in the context of a segregated society -- no thought that it might be more efficient if we combined our school systems instead of trying to fund two systems, one for white children, one for black children, we might come out better. So I think that he deserves some credit for that. If you want, there is one other story that is related to this whole theme of race and politics. Within a month of his taking office, there was the most brutal lynching in South Carolina in years. A man named Willie Earl was thought to have killed a cab driver. Some of this cab driver's friends came to the jail, overpowered everybody, took him out and killed him in such a brutal manner that he was able to be identified only because somebody knew that he had some money in his pocket and they found these torn bills in his pocket.
Govenor Thurmond issued a statement in the strongest terms condemning the act, dispatched a special prosecutor up to Greenville to help the local authorities try the case. The men were tried, but the jury -- all men, all white -- found all the defendants, some of whom had even admitted taking part in this event, found them not guilty. Governor Thurmond said, in response to letters, you know we did the best we could, but at least we've shown that lynching will not be tolerated. He received a lot of acclaim for that from the North. Letters came in.
There is a whole file on this event; so much mail came about this. And it's interesting, I think, in a couple of respects. Most certainly when it came to law and order issues, he very much spoke up against this kind of brutalization. And then it is only a year and a half later that he becomes a symbol for holding on to a segregated society. You can just see the complexities of segregation and how people felt their place was in it and what they thought they needed to defend and how.
LAMB: Another former governor of the state of South Carolina is Fritz Hollings. He is a senator now, has been a senator for a long time; he's a Democrat. What's their relationship in the Senate as people watch them?
COHODAS: I didn't dwell on that too much in terms of their relationship with one another. Where I thought there was a striking moment between the two of them that illustrated in my view, not just the two generations of senators but also different parts of the country, was in 1982 during the Voting Rights Act discussion. Senator Thurmond was chairman of the Judiciary Committee then, had voted against every Voting Rights Act, the original one and two extensions in '70 and '75.
Senator Hollings came out to the floor in June in response to something the late Senator John East had said, from North Carolina, about he thought that this was really an unnecessary law, that things were overstated, that we didn't need this and Hollings came up to the floor and made just a strong and personal and important speech and said "You know, I have to refresh the memory of my friend from North Carolina, and let me tell you about my own history. I remember when I had to sign a card to be a member of the Democratic Party and I had to promise to support segregation, and my friend forgets these things. And it was not that long ago."
The next day Senator Thurmond came to the floor and, in a paraphrase, "That's pretty extraordinary to have a senator say something negative about his own state. And I don't think if we have problems of blacks voting in South Carolina it's because of discrimination. If people don't want to vote, we can't make them vote. And if anybody has had trouble voting, I want them to let me know, and I will contact the Justice Department." So then Senator Hollings came back on the floor and they had a discussion, and to me they were two very different views of the past, two very different generations. Senator Hollings more willing to take a look back and acknowledge the repression that came with segregation. Senator Thurmond, so much a part of it, less willing to do so in the discussions since.
LAMB: In your acknowledgment section, it was interesting to me that he has twin sisters?
COHODAS: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: How old are they?
COHODAS: Let's see. I believe they are about 83 or 84, very, very charming women who were very, very kind to me. Senator Thurmond is one of six children, and his brother Dr. Allan George Thurmond just passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 85 and only the older brother passed away, also a doctor, William Thurmond and he was in his 80s. So this is a family of very strong stock.
LAMB: Where did you find the twin sisters?
COHODAS: I found them in South Carolina. Mary Thurmond Tompkins lives in Edgefield, not far from where Senator Thurmond and his family all grew up, although that house does not exist. His other sister, Martha Thurmond Bishop, lives in the town of Greenwood, kind of up in the northwestern part of the state.
LAMB: Senator Thurmond has quite an accent.
COHODAS: Yes, he does.
LAMB: Do the sisters talk the same way?
COHODAS: Sort of, but a little softer. The one thing I think of -- Senator Thurmond's first name as Strom. They refer to him as Strum as though it were spelled S-T-R-U-M. But they were very charming. I had no trouble understanding them at all. They are both retired school teachers in what was as sweet as anything. They were both prepared for my visit and had written notes about things they wanted to tell me, not so much that Strom was the most wonderful person, whatever, but just stories they wanted to tell me about their very early years in Edgefield. This is not too long after the turn of the century, and their memories of going to "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman's house in a horse and buggy and their parents going to his daughter's wedding and also a feel for what life was like in the Thurmond household in Edgefield.
LAMB: He is seven years older, so he is the older brother?
COHODAS: Yes, he is.
LAMB: Do they see each other very often?
COHODAS: When the senator goes back to South Carolina, I think he makes it a point to see them, and I know that they are in touch with the office because, occasionally, during the working on this book, I would get a message from the senator's office that one of the sisters had lost my number and wanted to get in touch with me. So I believe they do stay in touch. He has another sister, Gertrude Thurmond, with whom I did not speak because it was my understanding at that time she was having some health problems and it would have been difficult.
LAMB: You spoke earlier of the fact that he was a ladies' man. What did that mean?
COHODAS: I think the senator enjoyed being seen with attractive women, and when he finally had to answer questions as a state senator about why wasn't he married yet, already in his 30s, he said that he was too busy with business but that he was always very happy when the nurses came to lobby.
LAMB: Where is this picture?
COHODAS: That's in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This is several months before he, I think, got serious with Jean and certainly before they announced their engagement, and he is on a beach. In that he's 45 and a half years old there and fairly flat stomach.
LAMB: Does he still exercise?
COHODAS: As far as I know, three times a week; in fact, one of my favorite pictures in the book is the very last one, when a reporter had a very good idea, went out and did one of the workouts with Senator Thurmond. This reporter who writes for the Charlotte Observer said that he considered himself in good shape and went out and worked out with the senator and lost him either on the sit-ups or the pushups.
LAMB: This picture is taken in 1991.
LAMB: And it shows Senator Thurmond with hair. Where did he get the hair? Those earlier pictures, he has no hair.
COHODAS: Yes, exactly. I have joked and others have joked too, when he turned Republican, he grew more hair and it got lighter. He had hair transplants. I can't remember the exact year, and, I will say, when I met his sisters, they had lovely, fluffy grayish-white hair. I'll leave it at that; the senator does not.
LAMB: Did you ever ask him why he did that?
COHODAS: You know, I didn't.
LAMB: Also in the book here we've got a picture of his second wife. What's the status of that marriage?
COHODAS: They are quasi-separated, as I understand it. They announced their separation a couple of years ago, actually just a few days before Lee Atwater died, although I know that Mrs. Thurmond is up in Washington now and then. The reason I can't give you perfect answers on this is that I didn't dwell on this. I really see Senator Thurmond as a complete political individual. I don't mean that at all pejoratively. This is what drives him. This is what is consuming.
One of his in-laws said to me at a gathering in South Carolina a couple years ago when a lot of former staff got together for a dinner and just to tell stories, and she came up and she said, "You know he very rarely if ever goes home on a weekend. He puts his feet up on the desk and takes the phone off the hook." And, indeed, there's a story in there that one of his Senate opponents tells -- Pug Ravenel, from the 1978 race -- that one of his friends said the phone rang Christmas Eve night, picked it up, "Hello, Senator Thurmond, Strom Thurmond. Nancy and I were sitting around the fire and just wanted to wish you a holiday greetings." You know, you would think that most people on Christmas Eve would be doing a lot of family things, but the senator was doing some political work.
LAMB: A couple more questions about his personal life. When did he marry Nancy, his second wife?
COHODAS: Not too long after the 1968 presidential election that brought Richard Nixon to the White House, with a great deal of help from Strom Thurmond. And his decision to marry Nancy Moore was not at all popular with the people closest to him. His closest aides, then Harry Dent and Fred Buzhardt, who passed away several years ago, begged and pleaded with him that it was just the worst thing in world to do. And he said, all right go and talk to Nancy and if she says that she won't, well, then it's all right with me. And they worked on her, and she said, "But I love him and I want to marry him." Later when I was talking to the senator about that he said "I knew she wouldn't say no." So he felt very comfortable when he told Harry Dent and Fred Buzhardt, "All right, if you can convince Nancy not to marry me, then the wedding is off."
LAMB: Why were his aides involved in a romance in the first place?
COHODAS: Oh, I think, just because by that time the senator was nearly 68 years old and Nancy Moore was about 22 and a half, a 44-year age difference. We may have come a long way but, you know, for a politician who was hoping to survive, there was good reason to believe you might alienate a lot of people and just look kind of odd doing this. Do I dare say wacky? And that it just was not a very smart political thing to do.
But, as history has shown, it has not turned out to be that at all, and, indeed, in 1978 having a young, attractive wife and four very cute children who ran around or drove around the state in the Strom truck with t-shirts that said "Vote for my daddy" was a wonderful thing to blunt Pug Ravenel's appeal -- young, handsome, 40 years old. And there was another picture in there during that campaign of Senator Thurmond sliding down a fire station pole at his son Strom Jr.'s sixth birthday, again to show he was plenty vigorous and could, if you will, keep up with the times.
LAMB: You mention Pug Ravenel. How close did he come to beating him?
COHODAS: He brought SenatorThurmond under 60 percent of the vote, and that's closer than a lot of other people.
LAMB: That was '78?
COHODAS: Yes, that is correct. You know, on paper Ravenel should have been able to beat him. Jimmy Carter had just been elected in 1976. He was still pretty popular. He came to the state to campaign for Ravenel. Ravenel, as I say, was bright, attractive, an up-by-the-bootstraps man from a hard working Charleston family, had won scholarships to Harvard, was a wonderful athlete, smart, all of those things, and on paper he should have been able to retire a man who was nearly 78 years old but it didn't work that way.
LAMB: There are a lot of things we can talk about. One that I want to jump back to: the only senator in history to ever win by write-in.
COHODAS: I believe that's correct -- 1954 -- and would you like me to talk a little bit about that?
LAMB: What party was he in?
COHODAS: He was a Democrat then.
LAMB: How was he written in?
COHODAS: Literally, with a space on the ballot for writing in the name of somebody and even a ruling by the attorney general right before the attorney general of South Carolina, right before the election, that if he didn't spell it exactly right, what was to determine the validity of the ballot was the voter's intent. So if you had S-T-R-E on or something like that, something that looked like Strom Thurmond -- that was good enough. In fact, the senator has framed in his office a newspaper ad -- it was a great educational campaign in the state once the senator announced that he was going to be a write-in candidate, to tell people how to do exactly what you asked. There was a picture of the ballot with the names of the candidates and then a big arrow, and it says "Write in Senator Thurmond." He has that framed and he's also got a little pencil, and there were stories about ad-hoc writing classes going on around the state.
LAMB: What was the situation of the state at the time?
COHODAS: Right. What had happened is that the incumbent Senator Burnet Maybanks had unexpectedly a heart attack. I say unexpectedly because everybody thought he was not someone who was known to have had a heart condition. He was at his vacation home, dropped dead. This was after the time that state law had specified for a primary. Literally, from Maybanks's funeral, senior Democratic officials had got in their car, raced back to Columbia.
He was from the Charleston area, I believe, and they raced back to Columbia, convened a meeting of the Democratic Party and anointed Edgar Brown, a very powerful state senator, also from Barnwell County, the home of Jean Thurmond, to be the Democratic Party nominee. Within a day, there was an uneasy feeling that was going to grow and grow: that this somehow was not appropriate; that this small group of Democratic Party officials should not have anointed somebody; that, regardless of what state laws said, there was the feeling there ought to have been a primary, there ought to have been a way to let the people decide who their nominees should be.
And it built and built, and Senator Thurmond -- by this time, he had been out of office for a couple of years; he finished his gubernatorial term in 1950 -- he had run for the Senate against Olin Johnston, Represenative Liz Patterson's father, in the only race he ever lost, the only head-to-head race he ever lost and was a very successful lawyer in Aiken. But he had kept speaking to civic groups, and people certainly knew that Strom Thurmond was around and they turned to him and he finally announced that he was going to be a write-in candidate.
LAMB: There is a picture I want you to explain. This is Senator Thurmond right here.
COHODAS: Yes, as a state senator, that's correct. That is Olin Johnston when he was governor. I believe that was his first term as governor. He served one four-year term, a hiatus, and then he served another four-year term, then was elected to the Senate.
LAMB: How big did he win on the write in?
COHODAS: Oh, handsomely. I'm sorry to say that the exact statistic escapes me, but it was handsome. It was not at all 50.3 to 49.7. It was a handsome victory, and what happened back then, no TV, so newspapers were very important. A huge number of the dailies and the weeklies got behind this, and there was a hurdle for Edgar Brown that he could not get over it. No one doubted that he was qualified, could have made a good senator but it just stuck in people's craw the way it happened. It looked like a fast deal, and Senator Thurmond was able to make a good bit of hay over that and that is pretty much what the campaign was about, procedure, not issues at all. When you go back and read, day after day, in the editorials, that's what you find.
LAMB: How long did it take for you to write the book?
COHODAS: From the time I started till the first hard cover arrived in my hands was three years and 10 months. The actual intensive research and writing was about two and three-quarter years.
LAMB: Where did you spend most of the time?
COHODAS: In South Carolina. I made 20 trips there and two to Mississippi and two to Alabama. The reason that I did it that way is that there is roughly 110 years of history in the book, and I knew that the wonderful stories that the senator himself and his family members told me, for example, about Edgefield, I could never keep that fresh if I tried to research all that I wanted to do and then say, okay, now I'm ready to write. So I researched sections, wrote them, took a deep breath and started in on a whole new territory.
LAMB: Did you quit your job at Congressional Quarterly?
COHODAS: I did. I was on leave for a while, and they were very generous to me. And when I could see that I wasn't going to finish, I just ended my formal relationship with them, but I daresay I talk to someone over there almost every week if not every day. I can't say enough about the publications that come out of Congressional Quarterly. And, indeed, they are responsible for this book. It grew directly out of my experiences covering the Judiciary Committee.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
COHODAS: Right here in Washington.
LAMB: You say here in the notes of acknowledgment, "To my landlord, the Alan Guttmacher Institute."
COHODAS: Right. I'm just using their office space. When I decided to write the book and got the opportunity to do so, I knew that I didn't want to work at home, so I just started calling around people I had known. I had gotten to know lobbyists, or whoever I thought might have had an extra office, and, low and behold, they did have some extra space so I sublet it from them. So I had no official ties from them except that they have been wonderful to me while I was working on the book, and giving me a desk and office space and letting me use the telephone.
LAMB: What is it, by the way?
COHODAS: It is a research institute that does research on reproductive-health issues.
LAMB: You also tell a little story at the beginning of your acknowledgment about an Avis Rent-A-Car agent.
COHODAS: Yes, it's true.
LAMB: Was it important to you?
COHODAS: For the good feeling it gave me that maybe this thing was going to work out. It was on my first trip to Alabama. I flew into Birmingham. Then I had an appointment over in Tuscaloosa. I needed to rent a car, and the woman is making conversation, "What brought you to Alabama?" so I told her and she seemed to listen, actually with interest, and told me that the book sounded interesting and that she was going to look for it. And I thought, "God bless you, that's such a nice thing to say" and truly it made me feel like, as I say, it was going to work out.
LAMB: You also thank Nancy Lisagor. Why?
COHODAS: Nancy and I went to college together at the University of Michigan, and she and her husband wrote a book a few years ago about the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell -- an interesting concept, a book about the social history of a law firm. I believe the book is called “A Law Unto Itself.” I knew she was coming to town for a book signing, and I went down to see her and was one of the first people there so we had a little bit of time to visit.
By this time it was 1988. I had covered Senator Thurmond since 1979. I had seen this man who I had identified, like so many others, as this old segregationist, the Dixiecrat candidate -- holds the record for the longest filibuster against the civil rights bill -- who had given a speech right after he was going to become the Judiciary chairman, saying, We've got to get the government out of education. We're going to have a voting rights act; it's got to be a national act, which is a euphemism for saying we're going to gut the thing. And he turns out to be such a completely different kind of chairman, supports the Martin Luther King holiday, and, as I say, all of this had happened by the time I went to see Nancy.
I had written a couple of columns about him for CQ , and I said, "You know Nancy, I think there is a great story to tell here and maybe a book." She said, " I think it's a great idea; why don't you at least try to do something." And so I thought, Well, that was nice of her to say. Three days later she sent me a postcard, which still sits in my kitchen, and it said, "It was good to see you. I think it's a great idea. I hope you will at least try to get an agent." So I sat down that night and talked to a friend at CQ, sat down and knocked out a bunch of paragraphs and it grew from there. It went through a lot of revisions from that very first draft, but the basic idea was the same: that there is, I think, a terrific story in Senator Thurmond's life because, in one political career, you have the old South and you have the new South, and there is no other senator -- I'll even go as far, say, a member of Congress -- whom you can look at in quite the same way.
LAMB: 1957, the longest filibuster in the United States Senate in history. First of all, what's a filibuster?
COHODAS: A filibuster is the effort to block legislation by keeping talking, not giving up the floor so that other business can go on.
LAMB: And is it possible for anybody in the Senate to do that any time?
COHODAS: I believe so. Once you get the floor you can keep it, but, if you give it up, you're probably not going to get it back if they know what you want to do.
LAMB: He came to the Senate, write-in vote, first and only one in history, 1954, and in 1957 he finds himself where, at this moment? What were the circumstances?
COHODAS: This was in the midst of working on a civil rights bill. Eisenhower was president. Lyndon Johnson is majority leader. Richard Russell of Georgia is the senior tactician for the Southern senators. They're not very happy about a civil rights bill, but, from many people's perspective, they thought something was going to be enacted and they best try to make it as least harmful to the South as possible. Went through a lot of negotiating; the bill went back and forth.
Senator Thurmond was particularly concerned about the jury trial provisions and whether somebody would be entitled to a jury trial if he were found liable of violating someone's civil rights. He did not like the compromise that had been worked out back and forth with the House and Senate and, in fact, he had said to Russell he wanted to call a meeting of the Southern caucus and he wanted a unified effort against it. Russell did not want to do that. So Senator Thurmond quietly -- on his own he told Russell that he was going to have to oppose it and decided that he would. He had not said very much to his aides, but Harry Dent, who would later go on to be the very senior aide to Richard Nixon in the White House, said that he began to think something was up when he saw the senator gathering papers to take reading material to the floor in the early evening.
I don't know how many people knew this, either, that earlier in the day the senator, or at some point that was relevant given what was in the senator's mind, he went to the steam room for a long time to completely dehydrate himself so that, as he started to drink water and anything else, he would not have to go to the bathroom and, therefore, give up the floor. He put a bunch of malted milk balls in one pocket and some throat lozenges in another and went out to the floor. He had been brought dinner by his wife; Jean brought up a piece of sirloin steak and some pumpernickel, and so he ate something and she went upstairs in the family gallery to watch and, coincidentally, Clarence Mitchell, who was then one of the senior people with the NAACP in Washington, was just down the way so the two of them, Strom Thurmond's wife and Clarence Mitchell, sat in the gallery as he began speaking, I believe, at 8:54 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1957.
He began by reading every state statute that covered voting in an effort to say we really don't need a federal voting rights law; we have all the voting legislation that we need. Of course, the answer back would be, "But, yes, the way you have drawn those voting regulations, you have purposely disfranchised many people in your state, most of them black." That is the answer back. So he started reading the statutes and going on and on. He got a couple of acceptable breaks when somebody asked permission to put something in the record, and he could yield for that purpose. This went on until 9:12, I believe, the next night, August 29, when he walked off the floor.
Harry Dent had gone to see the Senate doctor. He was worried about him, and the doctor sent a message back and said, "You tell him if he doesn't get off the floor, I'm going to come and carry him off." Dent had brought a bucket with him right inside the cloak room in case Thurmond needed to relieve himself right away. He just brushed Dent aside and talked to reporters. There is a wonderful picture that is not in the book of Jean Thurmond waiting for the senator, and the gloss is so clear you can see the stubble on his cheeks and he is surrounded by a group of men who are taking notes. He is talking to reporters and Jean Thurmond said to the reporters, "You know, he often gets mail addressed to Strong Thurmond, and I think this previous evening proved them right."
LAMB: I chuckled when I read this, when you talked about Senator Paul Douglas.
COHODAS: Bringing him orange juice, that's right. And he starting to drink it with gusto and then Harry Dent realizing, wait a minute, that this could be trouble, and so he very quietly takes the pitcher of orange juice away so that the senator won't drink too much. On a bit of a serious note, and I believe I wrote this in the book, the senator would ask Harry Dent periodically, "Are you hearing anything?" -- you know, "Go check, are there any phone calls coming in; are there any telegrams?" He was hoping that when people knew that he was out there -- Southerners -- they were going to start pressuring, quite quickly, their own senators and that he might get some support.
And, if I could add, while it was an enormous display of vigor on the senator's part, and as one of the identifying factors when you say the name Strom Thurmond, it was not at all well received by his Southern colleagues. In fact, Russell made some very public comments that were quite pointed the next day, feeling that it would have been much more harmful to try to stop a bill that was already going to go through and it would have been a worse bill and we did the best we could. So it was not perceived as the most positive thing among the senator's colleagues. And to this day, and that was fascinating to me when Senator Thurmond and I went over that; he told me about this, in my memory, with the same degree of detail and emotion as though it had been yesterday. He got angry all over again that his Southern colleagues would not come out and join him because he was convinced, he was convinced, they could have stopped it.
LAMB: Even though since he has voted for civil rights?
COHODAS: I think he was recalling the moment back then that -- the senator, I think, to this day and for however much longer he serves, is always going to tell you he is concerned about a large federal government. And he can give you a 10th Amendment speech just like that, the 10th Amendment saying, basically, that all powers not reserved to by the Constitution to the federal government or to the people belong to the states. He begins most of his analysis of anything right from there. It was in that spirit; it was an intrusion, who is federal government, telling us what to do?
LAMB: Is he proud of still having the longest filibuster?
COHODAS: Probably. I did not ask him directly: "Are you still proud that you hold this record?" But I would assume that he is, particularly; you know, it certainly burnishes the image of vigor.
LAMB: There was another little moment where he's got one foot in the cloak room and one foot in the chamber.
COHODAS: Right. Harry Dent had said, you know, you can step back and while somebody was doing something on the floor -- again, the kind of an excused interruption -- but you have to keep one foot there and, I think that, if my memory is correct, he might have wobbled a little bit but whoever was in the chair didn't see it -- could have taken the floor away from him, but he slipped through all right.
LAMB: This is really a non sequitur, but it's such an interesting story I wanted you to tell it. When I went back to the notes in the back, I found that this was an interview that you had gotten with a fellow by the name of David Van.
COHODAS: Yes, a lawyer from Birmingham, Alabama
LAMB: Can you give us who David Van is, first of all?
COHODAS: David Van is, I think it would be fair to say, a longtime civic leader in Birmingham, Alabama, after he was a clerk for Hugo Black. He was instrumental in helping Birmingham come through some of its most difficult days when there were the daily marches and demonstrations in order to integrate facilities -- lunch counters and the like. Martin Luther King was down there. Bull Connor was the infamous police chief, and David Van was part of the group that figured out a way, legally, through a petition in using Alabama election laws, to vote Bull Connor out of office, which, in fact, they did, not without a fight. For a few weeks Birmingham in the early '60s had two city governments until the court ruled with the people who had gone through the election procedures; David Van was one of the strategists, the architect of this particular plan.
LAMB: David Van was a clerk for Justice Hugo Black?
COHODAS: Right, in the year 1954, which is a central moment, when the Brown v. Board of Education litigation was before the high court.
LAMB: You found David Van for an interview when you wrote this book?
COHODAS: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: Where did you find him?
COHODAS: I found him in Birmingham in his law office.
LAMB: How old a man is he now?
COHODAS: I would say in his early 60s. I apologize if I'm off; if not that, then somewhere around late 50s and 60s.
LAMB: The only reason I was interested in it was because we do so much about the court, and this was an insight into the information about when the decision came down on Brown vs. Board of Education.
COHODAS: Right. David Van lived at Justice Black's house, and he was driving him in. Everybody knew at the court that the Brown decision was there and being worked on, and I might add for people who are deeply interested in Brown, and I cite this in my acknowledgment, you must pick up Simple Justice, Richard Kluger's book, if you really want the inside story. This was just a vignette that I picked up. He took Black into court and in time for -- I think they were going in at noon back then -- and said do you need me for anything? And Justice Black said no, it's all right, go ahead. So Van thought, well, I'll go get some of my buddies who are clerks and we'll have lunch. So he poked his head in the office of another clerk and said do you want to have lunch, and the clerk said I can't, my justice is here. And as soon as Van heard that -- I think it might have been, and you'll have to forgive me; I haven't thought deeply about that, a justice who was sick and came back.
LAMB: He hadn't been to the court for some time.
COHODAS: Right. And when David heard that Justice Jackson had come into the courthouse, he said, oh boy, you know, something must be up. Shortly thereafter one of the other justices said, "You know, boys -- and they were all men back then -- "you might want to be in the courtroom in a little bit." And, sure enough, the justices assembled and went through a couple of routine cases ahead of it. Then, I believe, it was Justice Warren who said, "I have a decision today," and he read the opinion. I believe the word "unanimous" was not in the written text, but Burger talks about this in his own memoirs, and he said it was getting a little sticky out there. Everybody is looking, they're listening and . . .
LAMB: You mean Chief Justice Earl Warren.
COHODAS: Right, in his memoirs. Because everybody, and as David Van tells it, he's hearing the decision and he's looking. He's trying to guess faces: What are the numbers going to be? Who's going to vote no? Trying to guess, and that's when Warren threw in the word "unanimously," and then Van later ran into Warren in the hallway. He explained to me and said, you know, "I didn't say 'unanimously' in there," and then, according to Van, Warren said, yes, it was getting a little sticky in there -- I think "sticky" meaning tense. So he said "unanimously."
LAMB: We have so little time, and there is a lot that we haven't covered, as you know. There is a lot about civil rights in here. Let me just ask you a couple quick questions about Strom Thurmond. First of all, what's his first name?
LAMB: How come he never uses it?
COHODAS: You know, I think Strom was a family name. I think just from the beginning it was Strom, and for a while he was J. Strom and then he just dropped the J.
LAMB: He was a Democrat. When did he turn Republican?
COHODAS: The actual, official becoming a Republican was 1964, but to support Barry Goldwater. But, in my view, it was really the end point of something that began in 1948 when he emerged as the leader of the states' rights Democrats and said, like so many Southerners, We're the Democrats. We didn't leave that group that had met in Philadelphia. They left us. He supported Eisenhower in '52; I believe he supported Eisenhower in '56, was very cagey about what he was going to do in 1960 but he certainly spoke harshly about the platform in 1960. So, by the time you get to 1964, it was really the end point and also the culmination of continuing and growing discomfort as a senator, as Harry Dent said to me in the many hours we spent together talking about this, that for so long in the late '50s and '60s the senator was always the odd man out, not welcome at the table, so it was '64.
LAMB: In 1948 he ran for president on what ticket?
COHODAS: They called themselves the states' rights Democrats. His vice presidential running mate was Fielding Wright, and, indeed, there is a little section in there just about the complications of trying to get on the ballot and trying to be labeled the regular Democrats in the Southern states because still the word Democrat was important and it was much easier to do well on the ballot if you could be considered the Democrat, thereby trying to paint Truman as something other than a Democrat. They were not successful in that except in a couple of states.
LAMB: He was a Dixiecrat?
COHODAS: Yes, that's a shorthand term.
LAMB: How many states did he win?
COHODAS: He won four states and, I believe, electoral votes. The senator said to me a couple of times and has said to other people that in all the elections that he's been in, he thought that was very important because it pulled four states out of the traditional Democratic allotment, and it showed the sky wouldn't fall. And it let the South know that for the first time since the days after Reconstruction, when the word Republican was anathema because they were the ones who were in power right after the Civil War that, if you didn't vote straight Democratic, as he said, the sky was not going to fall.
LAMB: When he turned Republican in '64, was he the first Republican senator in the South?
COHODAS: I can't remember John Tower -- he was from Texas -- but certainly the Deep South, and maybe people might argue with the way that I want to draw a distinction, but, as you know from this book, there is things about other politicians than Senator Thurmond to try to flesh out the notion of white Southern political power and I think that South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia are really the heart of the South in terms of what this book is about, racial politics, because of the racial makeup and that where you have smaller black population, you generally have less tensions along these lines -- so, of the Deep South states, yes.
LAMB: You show some amazement that this man, Strom Thurmond, supported and voted for and befriended Clarence Thomas.
COHODAS: Indeed, and I think there are a couple ways to look at that, and I must say that I've been criticized by some who have written about the book that Clarence Thomas doesn't make a very good case for saying anything about change in Senator Thurmond's life because he's conservative and, therefore, it was easy for Senator Thurmond to vote for him.
But I would simply say a couple of things in response. You have to remember that Senator Thurmond was born at the turn of the century into a social system that was already set and was only going to be hardened, that said blacks do not become lawyers who might represent white people and they certainly don't become judges, they don't become doctors who serve the white population, they don't become college presidents, anything like that.
And here he is, many years later, embracing a black man for a seat on the United States Supreme Court, and that, to me, is going some. It is certainly true that Clarence Thomas's philosophy is very different from Thurgood Marshall's, for example, whom Thurmond opposed for the Supreme Court. But I think it is also worth remembering that Senator Thurmond has given his backing to other individuals of color for high federal positions who are much more liberal than Clarence Thomas, one of them a federal judge, the first black federal judge from South Carolina, Matthew Perry, who was a former civil rights lawyer.
LAMB: There was a big piece in the Washington Post about Strom Thurmond and, supposedly, a black child. I've got here from Simon & Schuster a P.R. letter. They highlight three or four points for this book; in one of them they say, "Thurmond's unconventional personal life, his reputation as a ladies' man and his second marriage at age 65 to a 22-year-old woman and the persistent allegation that he has provided lifelong financial assistance to a black woman said to be his illegitimate daughter... "I looked in your book, and this is all I found. There is not a word mentioned in this paragraph here about financial assistance and all that. Why would the P.R. lady at Simon & Schuster make such a big thing out of it, and you only put this in for a couple of paragraphs?
COHODAS: That's a good question. I did not know that that was in there. I heard that allegation on my first trip to South Carolina, was surprised by it and then talked to other friends who are reporters who have gone down to South Carolina to write about Senator Thurmond. I wrote about it in the book as I perceived it. I did not believe it to be true. I also don't think it's the reason that I am interested in Strom Thurmond and that we are interested in Strom Thurmond, and it is a persistent rumor in the black community for many, many, many years. As I wrote in the book, I take it to be as interesting as a sociological fact that powerful white men were assumed to have had their way with black women, and that certainly was the case during slave society.
LAMB: Do you have any idea why the Washington Post made such a big thing out of it?
COHODAS: I think that was in the aftermath of Penthouse magazine finding this person who said she is not his daughter and him saying he is not her father and somebody having spent a lot of time doing it. It is certainly a titillating story. I would just have to say, again, I think that the reason Strom Thurmond is interesting to us in terms of a political story is the length of his career and the change he has seen, some of which he fought against but survived, and how you learn about a political system.
LAMB: What does he think about the book?
COHODAS: I don't know. He hasn't said a word to me.
LAMB: What does Harry Dent think of this book?
COHODAS: He has spoken positively to me about it, said to me he thought that it was a fair presentation of the senator's career.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. Nadine Cohodas is the author. “Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change.” Thank you very much for joining us.
COHODAS: Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.