Why I Discounted Rumors About Strom Thurmond

Nadine Cohodas, biographer of Strom Thurmond, writing in the NYT (Dec. 27, 2003):

Now that we all know about Ms. Washington-Williams, there has been much conversation about how such rumors remained unexplored, especially on the part of the many journalists who followed Mr. Thurmond's long career. As one of them, I have to say that things weren't as obvious as they may now seem. If the existence of Mr. Thurmond's daughter was an article of faith in the black community of South Carolina, it was not fodder for the rumor mill on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, even during Mr. Thurmond's re-election campaigns.

During my research between 1989 and 1992 for a political biography of Mr. Thurmond, this matter was occasionally mentioned but was hardly the focus of any conversation I had with the politicians, activists and ordinary citizens — white and black — I spoke to. It seemed like the kind of lore that would naturally attach itself to a man of his generation.

Furthermore, Mr. Thurmond's staff did not seem worried about the matter. Close aides who handled much of his personal business conceded they had heard the rumor but made a convincing case that they saw no evidence that it was true. They were loath to bring it up with anyone and told me they never directly asked Mr. Thurmond about it.

Not even an electorate transformed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act made a difference. The new law ensured that blacks were no longer without a voice or without power. Any politician who hoped to remain in office had to pay attention to these newly enfranchised constituents, and Mr. Thurmond set the standard for making the transition from one era to another. In addition, Carrie Butler had died of kidney disease many years earlier. Her voice was stilled. Ms. Washington-Williams chose silence as well, keeping the decades-long contact with her father discreet and private.

Until Dec. 14, when she spoke frankly to a Washington Post reporter, Marilyn Thompson, Ms. Washington-Williams insisted to any who asked that she was only a Thurmond family friend. While others might have provided a roadmap to her door, no one was going to reach the final destination unless and until she made her story public.

Mr. Thurmond apparently remained unconcerned that his secret would become public. When one confidant brought up the matter during his final re-election campaign, the senator waved him off:"Don't worry about it." In part because of his daughter's acquiescence, he went to his grave without having to confront the truth.

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