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‘He’ll do his darnedest’ _ Strom Thurmond closes in on milestone

May 23, 1997

JOHNSTON, S.C. (AP) _ It doesn’t take a history buff to figure out how popular Sen. Strom Thurmond is around here, and a sleuth might have trouble digging up an unkind word about him.

Students here graduate from Strom Thurmond High School. Folks gather at an armory that bears his name. And nearby in his hometown of Edgefield, a broad-shouldered statue of Thurmond graces the town square.

At 94, he’s already the oldest member to serve in Congress. And on Sunday, the Republican senator will be here to commemorate the town’s centennial and mark another milestone _ as the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate.

``You won’t find anybody to say anything bad about him,″ said Golda Fox, whose known him for 40 years.

She reeled off his hallmarks: honesty, determination and doing things right. ``Just anything that anybody from Edgefield County wants, he’ll do his darnedest,″ she said.

By Sunday, Thurmond will have served 41 years and 10 months, surpassing by one day the record of the late Sen. Carl Hayden, who served 41 years, nine months and 30 days before his retirement in 1969. Hayden keeps the record for longest service in Congress, however _ he served 15 years in the House before he entered the Senate.

The new mark comes amid nagging questions about Thurmond’s capabilities as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and _ as Senate president pro tempore _ third in line of succession to the presidency.

Thurmond, who will be 100 if he completes his term after the 2002 elections, has said he won’t run again. On Thursday, he ruled out retiring earlier.

``I intend to serve my term out,″ he said, adding that he feels ``like a million dollars.″

Tommy Stone, a 41-year-old pharmacist, says Thurmond is ``acutely aware of everything that’s going on, but at the same time he can tell you details of things 70, 80 years ago from his childhood.″

Thurmond is a lifetime fitness buff who fathered four children when he was between the ages of 69 and 74. But he has slowed down.

He walks stiffly and in February spent 11 days hospitalized with the flu. Aides help him get around and hand him index cards to help guide him through committee sessions.

When Thurmond won his eighth six-year term last November, it was by the slimmest margin of his Senate career _ a still comfortable 53 percent to Democratic challenger Elliott Close’s 44 percent.

Half the voters questioned in exit polls expressed concerns that Thurmond would be unable to carry out his duties; one in three of those people still voted for him.

While many Republicans privately say he’s too old for the job, hardly anyone expects the senator to step down.

Thurmond served as South Carolina governor from 1947 to 1951 and ran for president on the segregationist ``Dixiecrat″ ticket in 1948.

He was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1954, winning a write-in campaign by harshly criticizing the state Democratic Party’s candidate selection process. He resigned from the Senate two years later to keep a campaign promise to stand for election in a fair primary contest. He won again.

In 1957, he set a Senate filibuster record by speaking for 24 hours, 18 minutes against a civil rights bill. Years later, he voted for an extension of the Voting Rights Act and was the first modern Southern senator to hire black staffers and sponsor a black federal judge.

He switched to the Republican Party in 1964.

``I think he represents the type of Southerner who survived by adjusting, and at least tried to neutralize black opposition,″ said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in Southern politics.

Thurmond’s longevity recipe? ``Watch your diet, exercise reasonably and develop an optimist’s attitude toward life.′

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