WASHINGTON – Senators -- Republican and Democratic, from the left to the right -- remembered the life, career and transformed racial views of Strom Thurmond (search) on Friday, a day after history's oldest and longest-serving member of the Senate died at 100.
For all the highlights of the South Carolina Republican's life -- he landed in Normandy (search) in a glider on D-Day and served more than 48 years as senator -- many senators felt compelled to address his racial legacy.
Thurmond ran a pro-segregation campaign for president in 1948. As a senator nine years later, he filibustered (search) against the civil rights bill (search) for a still-record 24 hours 18 minutes, denouncing its attempts at "race-mixing."
But unlike Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who lost his job as majority leader last December after embracing Thurmond's Dixiecrat (search) presidential run, senators saluted Thurmond's later racial views. He was the first Southern GOP senator to hire a black aide in 1970, and he supported money for historically black colleges and creation of the federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.
"I believe Strom Thurmond was a captive of his era, his age and his geography," said the liberal Sen. Joseph Biden (search), D-Del., a friend who said he has been asked to deliver a eulogy at Thurmond's funeral. "I do not believe Strom Thurmond at his core was a racist. But even if he had been, I believe that he changed."
"He campaigned on a platform of states' rights," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., who was catapulted from relative obscurity to the No. 1 Senate GOP job after the furor over Lott's remarks. "But in doing so, he also opposed civil rights, as he did for many years as a senator. History will reflect that part of Strom's life. But history will also reflect that when Strom saw America had changed, and changed for the better, he changed, too."
The chamber where Thurmond served until last January was virtually empty Friday. Most senators already had left for a weeklong July 4 break after working past midnight to pass a landmark bill to revamp Medicare.
But flags were at half-staff on the Senate side of the Capitol. The Senate used a voice vote to approve a resolution that honored Thurmond as a man who "conducted his life in an exemplary manner" whose death "has deprived his state and nation of a most outstanding senator."
And those lawmakers still around spoke about their late colleague, with few shying away from the subject of Thurmond's positions on race.
The man who inherited Thurmond's Senate seat in January said he had used "a platform that divided the races" in his 1948 presidential campaign.
"That was a dark time in South Carolina; it was a dark time for our nation," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
But Graham said Thurmond eventually "embraced the future," which made it easier for other Southern lawmakers to moderate their own racial views.
"It is not fair to freeze Senator Thurmond in time," Graham said, referring to Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign. "He will be held accountable in history for that part of his life. History should note, history should understand, that in many subtle ways and many bold ways, he allowed my state to move forward, and everybody in my state is better off for it."
There was levity, too, along with awe about the sheer longevity of Thurmond's life and career.
Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, recalled "the very worried look" on Thurmond's face when he emerged from the Capitol physician's office -- upset that he could no longer do the one-armed push-ups he long prided himself on.
Frist spoke of Thurmond's having campaigned for the votes of Civil War veterans early in his career, and having served with about one-fifth of all the senators in the nation's history. And Graham noted that Thurmond became a grandfather for the very first time only last week, at age 100.
"They tell me it was a very magic, touching moment, and a week later he passed on," Graham said.
But most of all, Thurmond's colleagues used the occasion to celebrate his evolution. "People change; people grow," Biden said.