Tags: Gramm | Helms | Thurmond: | Long | 1968

Gramm, Helms, Thurmond: So Long, 1968

Monday, 10 September 2001 12:00 AM

These three men, by the time of their retirement, will have served 96 years in the Senate and more than a century in Congress. They began their careers as Democrats, and each in their own way played key roles in the process by which the solid Democratic South that appeared in 15 of the 17 presidential elections from 1880 through 1944 has now become the solid Republican South that has appeared in four of the last eight presidential elections.

It was this transformation of the white South which transformed American politics, and each of these three men represented different aspects of this transformation - Thurmond the "respectable racists," Helms "the Redneck racists," Gramm the economically driven "new South" voters.

Strom Thurmond, who has set every longevity record possible, has lived so long that he has outlived most of the passions that he excited half-a-century ago. But when the Democratic convention in 1948 endorsed its first civil rights platform, he led the resulting "Dixiecrat" campaign which drew the electoral votes of four deep Southern states.

Thurmond's heavily black home county of Edgefield, S.C., in the Savannah River Valley, called by Fox Butterfield the "most violent" county in America, was also the home county of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, the violently racist South Carolina senator who dominated the state's politics for years. As Sam Lubell pointed out more than four decades ago, Thurmond represented the "respectable whites" of his county, and never indulged in the bloody language of Tillman.

These traditional Southern upper classes were "trapped" in the left-wing national Democratic Party by the need to maintain racial solidarity, and it was no coincidence that Thurmond became the first of the major Southern Democrats to change parties, to endorse Goldwater in 1964. (He could have said, but didn't: "Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty! I'm Free at Last!)

His support for Nixon in the Republican convention of 1968 helped hold him the nomination, and to carry South Carolina for the Republicans in the general election that year.

Nor was it a surprise that Thurmond, the first major officeholder to turn Republican, was also the first to adapt to black voting. His "redemptionist" political forbears, like General Wade Hampton, had used black votes to overturn Reconstruction, and shared none of the violent fantasies of a Tillman.

The same could not be said of the second of these historical figures, Jesse Helms, who was raised in Monroe, N.C., the son of the police chief. Helms first great "contribution" to American politics came as a young man, in his role as the campaign manager of Willis Smith, chairman of the Duke University Board of Trustees, against Sen. Frank Porter Graham, the famous reforming President of the University of North Carolina, in the North Carolina Democratic primary of 1950.

Graham came within a single percent of winning without a runoff, but two days before that day, the entire population of the state received a blaring pamphlet with the title "White people Wake Up!" saying that Graham was an integrationist, and complete with photos and text of horrible examples such as blacks and whites working together. (The entire course of this election is discussed in Chapter Six of Samuel Lubell's "The Future of American Politics," published 50 years ago.)

Smith won, and Helms went to work for him in Washington. Throughout the racially inflammatory 60s, Helms was a commentator on Raleigh TV, doing his best to pour gasoline on the flames.

Helms rode to the Senate on Richard Nixon's coattails in 1972. If Nixon's victory was in part a result of Thurmond, so Ronald Reagan's was a result of Helms. It was Helms who kept Reagan in the 1976 primaries by carrying North Carolina for him over President Gerald Ford on the issue of the Panama Canal.

Helms, unlike Thurmond, never became a "lovable institution," with a safe seat. His Senate victory percentages were 54-55-52-53-53. Not for him any accommodation with black voters - racial polarization has been his bread and butter - and it is he, not Thurmond, who has been the political heir of Tillman. His contribution to the Republican Southern majority was to find a way to get poor Southern whites to vote against their economic interests, and for the "party of the rich."

Phil Gramm, the youngest and the last to convert of these men, was raised in Georgia, flunked several grades but ground his way to a Ph.D. and a teaching job in economics at Texas A&M. He was elected to Congress from a Largely suburban Dallas-Forth Worth district in 1978, led the Democrats who passed Reagan's tax cut in 1981, then resigned, won re-election as a Republican, and went on to the Senate in 1984.

Although he is as conservative on race issues as the other two in this group, it is economics, not race, which excites his passions. He has been perhaps the purest representative of the ferociously free-market economics of the rapidly growing and sprawling (and lily-white) suburbs of the "New South" dubbed by (who else?) Sam Lubell as "Baptist economics," in his book on the 1972 election.

But all these men represent the past, not the future, of the South. Thurmond's genteel Southern patriarchy is (literally) "gone with the wind," as is the hardscrabble redneck racism of Helms, and, less obviously, the "anything goes" free-marketism of Gramm. The suburbs that sent Newt Gingrich and Gramm to Congress are no longer single-mindedly focused on growth - they are getting overcrowded, multi-cultural and worried about sprawl.

The South, which was the fulcrum of American politics between 1960 and 1980, is now one side of national politics - Al Gore became the first major-party Southern candidate for president not to carry a single Southern state.

Republicans don't need to reach out to the South - they ARE the South, or at least its white part. Their problem is how to make Southern politics palatable to the rest of the nation.

One of the constants of American politics is what I call the "36-year rule: "1789, 1824, 1860, 1896, 1932 and 1968 each marked a sea change in American political life. The predictable next year in this cycle will be 2004.

Bush's election was not what Republicans hoped it would be - the first election of a new cycle - but rather the last election of the old. And, just as LBJ's legislative program was largely the uncompleted part of the New Deal, so Bush's is the uncompleted part of Reagan's agenda. Whether it passes or doesn't, it won't be the future.

These early retirements in the 2002 cycle are a strong hint that the politics of the era of 1968 are indeed over. It's not possible to predict what will be the dominating issues of the next system, but it is safe to say that they will not be those represented by Thurmond, Helms, and Gramm. Their day is done.

(James Chapin is a former adviser to Mark Green, New York City's public advocate. He now writes about politics for UPI.)

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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These three men, by the time of their retirement, will have served 96 years in the Senate and more than a century in Congress. They began their careers as Democrats, and each in their own way played key roles in the process by which the solid Democratic South that appeared...
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Monday, 10 September 2001 12:00 AM
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