For South Carolinians, Gov. Mark Sanford has presented the gift of a full week of great conversation among friends, neighbors, and strangers for what can be described as the state’s most bizarre happening since World War II. (The word “recession” has gone unmentioned.)
The story is so universally known among Americans that a writer need provide no background about the adulterous governor who lied about his whereabouts, used a specially designed business trip that allowed him a stopover in Buenos Aires (by end of the week he announced he would reimburse the state $12,000), and kept his staff in the dark, telling them to inform the press he was clearing his mind on the Appalachian Trail.
The driver of the car transporting Sue Logue from the women’s penitentiary to the death house once told me that “Strong” Thurmond was in the back seat with her. Asked what they were doing, he said, “a-hugging and a-kissing the whole way.”
It all does bring back memories of Strom Thurmond—and others in this traditionalist state’s sometimes impetuous past. There was Sen. James H. Hammond, who shouted on the Senate floor on the eve of Civil War that “Cotton is King.” In today’s context, he is best recalled as the husband of a daughter of Wade Hampton II, father of Wade Hampton III—one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynastic figures in South Carolina. (All this knowing about who’s related to whom and their relationships with others is necessary for understanding this one great big small town of a state. Those who currently settle here are said by many South Carolinians to be from “off.”)
Getting back to Hammond—the story is mostly known to historians of his intimate affairs with two of his wife’s younger sisters (they remained single). The story also goes that when he left serving as governor, he feared that one of the Hampton men would kill him. Hammond also left a written record telling his son to take special care of a specific male slave, whom Hammond identified as “your half-brother.”
The more recent, but similarly bizarre liaison harkens back to 1943, and the electrocution of Sue Logue, who was Strom Thurmond’s longtime lover. As I have written in a pair of biographies of Thurmond, the opening paragraph in the applicable chapter of both books is as follows:
Of all the women ever romantically linked to Strom Thurmond, none was as deadly as Sue Logue. The judge who sentenced her to the electric chair for murder called her crime “the most cold-blooded in the history of the state.”
The driver of the car transporting her from the women’s penitentiary to the death house once told me that “Strong” Thurmond was in the back seat with her. Asked what they were doing, he said, “a-hugging and a-kissing the whole way.” She stayed in a private bedroom in the death house while awaiting the final judicial rejection of an appeal.
Her nephew involved in the crime, a former policeman who had his sentence commuted after his head was shaved to prepare for execution, later ran the bloodhounds for the State Law Enforcement Division, known statewide as SLED. A former governor (governors appoint the chief of SLED) once told me that the graveyard talk around SLED was that Joe Frank Logue always said his Aunt Sue was the only woman ever seduced on the way to the electric chair.
Strom in his day was far more complicated than Mark Sanford. When Carrie Butler, mother of their daughter Essie Mae, brought her to meet Thurmond in 1940 in the small office that still stands in his native Edgefield, he clearly had a choice. Blacks at that time were totally segregated and with no political power. Thurmond, then a state judge with sights set on becoming governor, could have dismissed this woman with whom he had been intimate for many years and told her, “I don’t believe I know you.” She would have been totally powerless.
Instead he agreed to meet with her and Essie. He entered the waiting room from his private office, looked at Essie with her high cheekbones for which Thurmond women were noted, and then turned to Carrie and said, “That’s a beautiful daughter you have.”
In a firm voice, she replied, “She’s your daughter, too.” That was Essie’s introduction to her father, about whom she had known nothing.
Strom then began to talk to Essie on matters always close to his heart, the value of exercise and eating right and the importance of education, explaining to her that the state of South Carolina had a fine college for black students. He wrote to his daughter while on active duty in World War II, where he talked his way aboard the final D-Day glider that landed in an apple orchard beyond German Army lines at Normandy—enough to allow this assigned noncombat officer to return home a war hero. Just before announcing his candidacy for governor, Strom met Essie in 1946 in Philadelphia, near her hometown of Coatesville, Pennsylvania.
As governor, he provided full support for her college education, visited her once or twice a year with his universally beloved first wife, Jean, who was 22 and he 44 when they married after Strom became governor. She often joined him on trips to South Carolina State in Orangeburg as ex officio chairman of its board of trustees, where the president’s administrative assistant’s job on such occasions was to go find Essie Mae.
The driver for Sue Logue’s final auto trip had become “chief of colored help” at the statehouse. Thurmond told him, “I guess I can trust you.” He would drive to pick up Essie at the train station on visits to Columbia, take her to the city’s top department store for shopping, and drop her off at the side entrance of the granite statehouse.
Inside the governor’s office, Jean sometimes joined Strom when Essie visited. Jean died tragically at the age of 33 of brain cancer in their 11th year of marriage, still early in Strom’s Senate career.
When he became the segregationist Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948, Essie asked how he could say the things he was saying in light of their relationship. Strom, a man who compartmentalized his life, seemed surprised, telling her, “That’s got nothing to do with us. That’s political.”
Strom quietly supported her financially until his death, went out of his way to meet her children, sent them graduation and other gifts, and stayed in touch by telephone. After her husband died, Essie flew at least annually from her home in Los Angeles to Washington to quietly visit her father in his Senate office and accept envelopes stuffed with $100 bills.
And when he died, Essie came forward to claim not any inheritance, but her and her children’s heritage. Essie quickly became an accepted family member. Today her name is chiseled on the Strom Thurmond monument on the statehouse grounds, added to those of his and his second wife Nancy’s four children.
The great big difference between Strom and Mark Sanford (he hasn’t yet achieved the ultimate recognition of a Southern politician of being universally known to all by his first name) is that Thurmond became a household legend as well as the subject of ribald jokes among his loyal supporters. Thurmond understood the role of government, possessed a mind much sharper (including a memory at least close to photographic) than he projected, and as U.S. senator regularly voted against federal government spending, but always made certain his state received at least its full share.
One can imagine Thurmond literally turning over in his grave during Sanford’s earlier national media blitz about standing on “principle” in his futile attempt to prevent the state from accepting almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in federal stimulus money for education and law enforcement.
Strom was never dull. He rarely expressed himself other than with forthrightness. The latest from Sanford is his comparing himself with King David (who fortunately never embarrassed his people about the matter of Bathsheba with a bizarre nationally televised press conference). Sanford followed by projecting a grandiose analogy of how he wants to demonstrate to his four sons how one can be knocked down and still pick up the pieces.
Among knowledgeable people in South Carolina, Jenny Sanford is considered the real political strategist in the family. She served as campaign director during all of his elections. As first lady, she has been actively engaged with his staff on policy issues and an in-depth research analyst. (Before meeting her husband, she reached an upper rung on Wall Street, after graduating summa cum laude from Georgetown.) She grew up in a family at the highest level of Chicago society. Friends call her socially open and fun, but tough, determined, and cool—with a total and controlled dedication as a mother of four sons who have attended socially elite private schools.
Political insiders considered her the brains and force of the effort for her husband to become the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. In aftermath of his return from Argentina this month and scores of personal apologies, but so far no real signs of making amends, his quest for high office exists only as ancient political history.
Whether her husband resigns or remains as governor is a decision in which Jenny Sanford may well be the key decider. My only advice to readers is that if you’re contemplating retirement and can’t stand boredom, come see us—and make sure you bring your Yankee dollars.
Jack Bass, co-author of Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond, is writing Justice Abandoned (the story of the Supreme Court and the road to Jim Crow) for Pantheon Books. He is professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston.