CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) _ Vice President George Bush today helped dedicate the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University, calling South Carolina's senior senator a testament to political courage.

''From his first days in public office as superintendent of education in Edgefield County to president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, he has stood for America's most fundamental values, and first his county, then his state, and now the country have come to know that Strom Thurmond is a man of consistent courage ... courage such as few men ever show in political life,'' Bush said.

Bush cited Thurmond's decision to switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party 21 years ago.

The ground-breaking brought out most of South Carolina's leading political figures, including Gov. Dick Riley and U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings, both Democrats. More than 4,000 people attended.

The 50,000-square-foot, $5.5 million institute will be a five-story brick building near the campus library at the center of the Clemson campus. It will include an archives, a 300-seat auditorium, a commons and reception area, and office space for Thurmond, visiting scholars, researchers and institute staff.

Riley called Thurmond a legend in South Carolina and said the institute will contribute greatly to education in the state.

A small and quiet contingent of students stood near the platform holding signs reading, ''Big Deal,'' ''Hands off Nicaragua'' and ''Peace for Longevity.''

During the ceremony, Thurmond, 82, said he has had the ''unique opportunity'' to serve the state in several ways, but the institute represents a summit in his life.

''I feel a deep sense of pride in the commencement of this project, not because it will bear my name, but because I will have a chance to contribute something of special significance to an institution which has meant so much to me - Clemson University.''

Thurmond has donated stacks of documents, tapes, photographs and assorted memorabilia. Included in the items are such items as a plaster cast of the senator's feet, the track shoes and shorts he wore at Clemson, college grade reports and a commemorative bowling ball.

But the key elements of the contribution are his political papers, which include documents from his first Senate win, a 1954 successful write-in campaign against Edgar A. Brown. Thurmond's current term expires in 1990.

Construction is expected to take between 18 months and 24 months to complete.