Strom Thurmond: Home On The Hill--Or Over It?

STROM THURMOND HAS DRIFTED OFF. The senior senator from South Carolina is posing for a photo in the foyer of his Capitol Hill office building, and though he addresses the camera with an expert smile, his mind is clearly elsewhere. "Here, Senator," suggests his press secretary, Chris Cimko, maneuvering a young female staffer into his line of sight. "Why don't you look over here?" Thurmond brightens. "Well now," he croons, "a pretty young lady like yourself -- that is something to smile about." Cimko presses a Strom Thurmond signature key chain into the senator's palm. He hands it to the photographer and ceremoniously recites his standard line: "You know, I'm president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, third in line for the presidency." With that, Cimko directs her boss down the hall and begins the slow walk to the elevator. "We have to get back to the office now, Senator," she says, enunciating each syllable. "Back to the office," he says. "That's fine."

At 93, Thurmond is the oldest senator in history, and in many ways he's still going strong. He greets colleagues' spouses by name, jokes about knowing FDR (he was first elected to public office when Herbert Hoover was president) and can recount the minutest details of his 68 years in politics. Thurmond has always been a bit eccentric, what with his Tabasco-red hair implants and penchant for marrying women decades his junior (he was 69 when the first of his four children was born). But as he prepares to run for a seventh Senate term this year, both Democratic and Republican colleagues worry that the chairman of the Armed Services Committee is no longer fit to handle the job. "He is with it enough to make quips that are funny and relevant," says one committee staffer, "but when it comes to policy, he is always reading from a prepared text."

Why, then, is Thurmond so intent on running again? In a sad way, he has no choice, say those who know him. After more than 40 years inside the Beltway, he has no life outside Washington. He has outlived all his peers. His children are grown, and he is amicably separated from his wife, Nancy, who lives in their South Carolina home. In focus groups conducted by his Democratic rival, NEWSWEEK has learned, South Carolina voters even express the fear that if they do not re-elect Thurmond he may die.

The blunt fact is that the Senate is, in ef-fect, Thurmond's nursing home. Thanks to the perks of office, the only thing he must do alone is dress in the morning and go to bed at night. In 1986 Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole quietly made sure Thurmond would be guaranteed a car and driver for as long as he remains in office. (Dole held up funding for the Armed Services Committee until Democrats agreed.) Once in the Capitol, aides escort him through the work day. "If he went home to South Carolina, he wouldn't have all this," said one Senate aide.

Thurmond's erratic behavior hasn't helped to dispel the impression that, at times, he isn't all there. In April, he got into a shouting match with a USAir flight attendant. The senator was flying coach but insisted on hanging his garment bag in the first-class closet. When the flight attendant refused, Thurmond angrily shoved him out of the way. At a recent Rotary Club meeting in Columbia, S.C., Strom rose to introduce a fellow senator, Phil Gramm--and went blank. Embarrassed, Gramm had to introduce himself. There are other examples. Last year a vagrant pushed Thurmond in the Senate subway station. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (a former Olympic judo-team member) ran over and wrestled the man to the ground; Thurmond walked on, blithely unaware that he'd been attacked.

But it is his wobbly leadership as chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee that has colleagues especially concerned. Last year, fellow committee Republicans John Warner and Trent Lott secretly implored Dole to strip Thur-mond of his chairmanship. Dole re-fused, but Thurmond got the message. He stopped his practice of skipping meetings. Since then, Thurmond hasn't handed over the gavel once.

Even so, fellow senators are unnerved by Thurmond's nearly complete dependence on his staff. During meetings, when the discussion veers from his prepared text, he sometimes becomes disoriented. At times he inadvertently reads the stage directions his staff scribbles in the margins, reminding him to pause or look up. Senate colleagues have also negotiated hallway deals with Thurmond only to have his staff veto the agreements. "His staff treats him like he's senile," says one senior Senate aide.

The senator's aides deny he requires special handling. "He's no more dependent on staff than any other senator," insists Cimko. But Thurmond's aides have certainly helped to ensure his political longevity. They scour state newspapers for names of spelling-bee winners and honor-roll students, who receive congratulatory letters from the senior senator. Staffers also compile a list of wedding announcements. On the day before the big event, Thurmond calls nearly every bride in the state to wish her good luck. The South Carolina landscape is peppered with monuments to the senator's skill at bringing home federal dollars. There's Strom Thurmond Highway, Strom Thurmond Federal Build-ing--even a lake named Thurmond. "What high school do you go to, young lady?" Thurmond asks the intern at the photo session. "I go to Strom Thurmond High, Senator," she says.

Thurmond has another strength. Over the years he has deftly remade himself in the image of the New South. As governor in the 1940s, he was a rigid segregationist who vowed to "never sign a bill to mix the races." He still holds the Senate record for the longest filibuster, talking nonstop for 24 hours, 18 minutes, in opposition to a 1957 civil-rights bill. But in the late '70s, Thurmond switched positions, voting to extend the voting-rights acts and to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. His support among black voters helps deter Democratic challengers. He hasn't faced a serious opponent in decades.

This year may be different. Polls show that 60 percent of South Carolina voters think Thurmond is too old to run again. His Democratic challenger, textiles millionaire Elliott Close, is pumping his own money into the race. But Thurmond has heard it all before. "I'll put my record up against his money any day," he told NEWSWEEK. He can afford to be confident. South Carolina is an overwhelmingly Republican state, and Thurmond has the lockstep support of the GOP. It's widely believed that Carroll Campbell, the popular former Republican governor, will be appointed to the seat if Thurmond steps down before his next term ends. Asked about that prospect, Thurmond turns coy. "Now, I wouldn't know anything about that," he says. Maybe not; but you can be sure the senator's handlers do.