Think Strom Thurmond, uber-right-winger and segregationist, is a figure from America’s political past? By Crespino’s (History/Emory Univ.; In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, 2007, etc.) account, Thurmond is the guiding spirit of the modern GOP.
Readers of a certain age might remember South Carolinian Thurmond as the fiery door-blocking defender of the Old South who, hypocritically, fathered a daughter out of wedlock with an African-American constituent. He was famous in his time for delivering a 24-hour-long speech in filibuster against a civil rights act in 1957; less well known was the fact that as soon as he finished talking, the Senate voted the act into law. It is a mistake to dismiss Thurmond as a relic, though, for Crespino reminds readers that when Barry Goldwater was just beginning his political career, Thurmond was busily “denouncing federal meddling in private business, the growing socialist impulse in American politics, and the dangers of statism,” all things of compulsive concern to rightists today. Thurmond was also a pioneer in obsessing over Fidel Castro, “the only senator to issue an unequivocal call for invasion” following the revelation that the Soviets were housing missiles in Cuba. Crespino traces Thurmond’s enduring influence to the intervention of Ronald Reagan, who led the conservative charge in the GOP’s first effort to denature its “dreaded moderate or liberal” wing, and of Richard Nixon, who, rather than view Thurmond as a “reactionary southern racist and Bircher extremist,” played to the senator’s fervent desire to be perceived as a statesman. Given the influence of Thurmond’s protégés and successors—not least Lee Atwater and his protégé, Karl Rove—on the GOP today, it’s small wonder that Thurmond’s legacy should be thriving.
A solid contribution to contemporary political analysis and a highly useful and timely companion in an election cycle marked by the resurgence of the controversies of Thurmond’s day.