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Mark Shields: For the Late Strom Thurmond, Political Loyalty Mattered

After having worked in or reported on the last 12 U.S. presidential elections, I am convinced that successful politicians who regularly run for and win public office possess an extra olfactory nerve that enables them to sniff changing political winds, often long before the rest of us have even noticed the leaves stirring.

The late Strom Thurmond was very good at his business, which was winning statewide elections in his native South Carolina. As a combat veteran of D-Day, he returned home and led a 1946 primary field of 11 Democratic candidates for governor before winning the runoff. He charged that his surviving opponent was not a strong enough supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt.

In 1948, after the 37-year-old Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey had galvanized the national Democratic Party at its Philadelphia convention with a historic summons "to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of civil rights," Thurmond bolted the national party and ran for president on the states' rights ticket, winning Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

In 1950, Thurmond lost the Democratic Senate primary to incumbent Sen. Olin Johnston, but in 1954, he made history by becoming the first man in the United States whose name was not printed on the ballot to win a Senate seat by write-in votes over a nominee. (In 2010, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, as a write-in candidate against the Democratic and GOP nominees, was able to keep her Alaska seat.)

Having won the Senate seat as an independent and Democrat, Thurmond broke again from the Democrats over federal civil rights laws and endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater, who carried only six states (South Carolina being one of them) against Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. Thurmond switched parties himself and, beginning in 1966, won six more six-year Senate terms as a Republican.

But what about this extra olfactory nerve in winning politicians we spoke of earlier?

In 1976, as the United States was about to elect Jimmy Carter, its first Southern president in the post-civil rights era, former President Gerald Ford nominated, and the Senate confirmed, the first black federal judge from Dixie, Matthew Perry, who had been a civil rights lawyer in South Carolina. After serving on the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, Perry was later nominated to the U.S. District Court for the district of South Carolina, where he served with distinction. Today in Columbia, S.C., judges and juries hear cases and seek justice in the Matthew J. Perry Federal Courthouse.

It should be noted that Perry's nomination to become the first African-American U.S. federal judge from the Old Confederacy was sponsored and supported by Thurmond, who also was the first Southern senator to hire a black professional on his Senate staff. Thurmond was no plaster saint. He was, I believe, wrong more often than he was right. But he did in fact change.

A word about political loyalty: In 1980, Thurmond backed former Texas Gov. John Connally to run against Ronald Reagan for the presidency. Connally had not won a single primary by the time South Carolina's took place in March, and had the strong smell of loser about him. Reagan was sailing to the nomination.

But Thurmond had endorsed Connally and meant it. I followed him the last week of that primary campaign as he introduced Connally as the "only president tough enough to deal with the Soviets and tough enough to deal with the Congress," telling me Connally "is the best presidential candidate in my lifetime."

The message was unmistakable: If Thurmond is with you, he sticks. He won't cut and run if and when things go bad. And if Thurmond is against you, you're in for a fight.

Loyalty is more than an applause line in a Fourth of July speech. Not a whole lot of that around these days.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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