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Will death stop Strom Thurmond?

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Sodomy laws are deemed unconstitutional and within 24 hours Strom Thurmond dies. Coincidence? I think not. Not that I'm saying Strom was shocked or anything. I figure that in a century of living, you've got to get over being shocked by things at some point. But perhaps this Supreme Court decision simply convinced Strom's mind what his body must have figured out ages ago: his time was over.

Fortunately for him, his base of operations has been the state of South Carolina, half of whose citizens learned to read via the McDonald's drive-thru. In South Carolina, where Bill Clinton's name is actually an official curse word, it's no problem that Strom was still sowing his wild oats well into his 80s (oh, the fields of grain this man was responsible for!). Partially because he stood for the conservative beliefs of South Carolina, he just kept on getting re-elected.

I admit that a part of me wants to have a grudging respect for Strom. To say, "Hey, he was an old coot, but he wasn't so bad ..." After all, saying bad things about him is to wound a figure of authority and power I've been aware of since childhood. But I'm going to ignore my sentimental nature this time and forget the Southern tradition of saying "but God bless him" about even the lowest scoundrels and evil-doers.

Just because Strom was well-liked doesn't make him a paragon of politics. Leaders like Strom and Jesse Helms are usually much beloved by many people. And why? Because they gave people what they wanted. Strom operated on the old-fashioned political system: a tit for a tat. In other words, there's a reason why every South Carolinian you meet will tell you a story about "the time Strom helped us out." Sometimes the favors were big and sometimes small. If it meant the world to a family for their son to intern in his office, so be it. If he could use his position to have a military base built in South Carolina, he would. Basically, he did favors for as many South Carolinians as he could manage. Once the favor was done, the vote was assured. This is called "constituent service," but it's also simple pandering and it doesn't help anybody's long-term interests. The focus of such a political life is clear: re-election. The sole goal: self-perpetuation. The tiny flaw in the system is that nothing ever happens. What you wind up with is politics as usual, forever.

Perhaps I'm being hard on Strom, who is dead and can't defend himself, as my grandmother would say. The true culprits are the people who kept re-electing him decade after decade -- people who care more about receiving personal favors than about any kind of higher ideals or principles. The job of an elected official is not to act like Santa Claus; his job is to make the right decisions about the direction of the entire country, decisions that will be for the ultimate good of everybody.

The voters of South Carolina, clearly, don't want to change. Most people don't. Now, though, Strom's demise designates a passing, a change of some sort for the state. Here's hoping it will be a good kind of change.

His death may serve as a milestone, not just for South Carolina but also for the entire South. The old-school politicians will dig in their heels and try to hang on. But if citizens demand politicians who are principled and dedicated to their beliefs, rather than just to the idea of being a pandering politician, we just may be able to avoid the cycle we perfected in Strom's eternal bid for re-election.

Strom, in fact, filibustered, aged and Dixiecratted his way into the history books. There's nothing to be done about that. But is his the kind of thinking we want to chart our future? Despite my frequent lack of faith in human nature, I believe there's a new generation of people out there who don't feel it necessary for law to coincide with religion, people who understand that church and state should be separated as the writers of the Constitution wisely noted before even Strom roamed the earth. People who might even be willing to sacrifice their petty concerns to the greater good.

On the other hand, since neither old age, incomprehensible speech, nor an inability to stay awake during Congressional proceedings kept Strom from running and winning a Senate seat election after election, I don't really see why death should have such a big impact. The fact is, if South Carolina had the opportunity to decide between a new senator who might possibly stir things up and make trouble, or a corpse, there's no doubt whatsoever who the enlightened voters in my home state would choose.

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