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Thurmond to Retire From Senate - 2002-11-27

A new Republican-led Senate will convene in January, but without a key figure who has served in that chamber for nearly half a century. Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who celebrates his 100th birthday next week, is retiring as the oldest and longest-serving lawmaker in Congress.

Just weeks before Congress adjourned for the year, Senator Thurmond fondly recalled his years in the Senate. "The United States Senate is a special place," he says. "There is nothing that compares to serving here."

Outgoing Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Tom Daschle, paid tribute to Mr. Thurmond's longevity in a recent speech on the Senate floor. "He is an institution within an institution," he says. "He has been alive for almost half the history of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt was President when he was born."

Mr. Thurmond was born in 1902, and began his political career as a Democrat. In the 1930s he served as a state senator from South Carolina. He served in World War II, then was elected governor of his state.

In 1948, he ran for president on a third-party (Dixiecrat) ticket with a platform of racial segregation. "There are not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the niggaries [blacks] into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches," he said.

As a Senator, first elected in 1954, Mr. Thurmond opposed many civil rights laws of the 1950s and 60s. To block one of those bills he took to the Senate floor and talked for more than 24 hours. That record-setting speech, or filibuster, became part of his legend. Eventually Senator Thurmond's views on race moderated. "We want to get together on as many things as we can to help the black people," he said.

Mr. Thurmond also became known for his support of states' rights, which he believed were being abused by President Truman. "Truman did a lot of good things. He dropped the [atomic] bomb [on Japan], which was good, some other things. But he wanted to bring the power to Washington," he says. "I wanted to keep it with the states and that is the reason I ran against him."

A staunch conservative, Senator Thurmond always believed in the need for a strong national defense. He switched to the Republican Party in 1964 because, as he put it, he thought the Democrats were leading the country toward socialism.

Mr. Thurmond's legend grew when, in his 60s, he married a 22-year-old former beauty queen. They later had four children.

Up until June of last year, when Democrats regained the majority in the Senate, Senator Thurmond was third in line of succession to the Presidency, after Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

In recent years he scaled back his duties as his health declined. Republican Congressman Lindsey Graham has been elected to succeed Senator Thurmond.