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Thurmond: A biographer's dream 

If it was a novel you wouldn't believe it

The late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina is a biographer's dream: bigger than life, full of contradiction and paradox (or hypocrisy and opportunism, depending on your viewpoint), whose long political career stretched from the dark days of lynching and racial segregation into the 21st century.

Along the way, he was a Republican, a Democrat and a Dixiecrat, a fiery segregationist and the father of a biracial daughter. When he was elected governor of South Carolina in 1946, he was heralded as a racial moderate; two years later, he led the Dixiecrat Party and swore "there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to . . . admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches." Yet he lived long enough to call for an extension of the Voting Rights Act and a Martin Luther King holiday.

He served 48 years in the US Senate — longer than anyone else — celebrating his 100th birthday weeks before the end of his last term. He died six months later and, six months after that, the world was introduced to Essie Mae Washington Williams, his deeply closeted black daughter.

Had this been written as a novel, it would've been a very bad one. But because every detail of this improbable life is fact — and because it has been presented by two first-rate journalists who have been covering their subject for decades — Strom is almost too good to be true.

This is Bass' and Thompson's second collaboration on Thurmond, and it is the better effort — a fully developed biography. After 40 years of sparring, Thurmond and Bass seem to have developed a wary fondness for one another. Bass could have blistered Thurmond for his deceit and demagoguery. Instead, he accepts it as part of the human condition under which this madly ambitious man played out his life.

Bass and Thompson close with a meditation on Strom, Essie Mae and what their relationship could mean to the future of race relations in America: "Thurmond knew that when Essie's story came out, it would be bigger than anything in his life. The way his family handles it may make it one of the most significant parts of his legacy." Quite so.

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