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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps the most nuanced and well written biography on Thurmond and his larger meaning, November 15, 2012
This review is from: Strom Thurmond's America (Hardcover)
Few political figures carry as much baggage with them as the late Senator Strom Thurmond. Most people recoil at the mention of his name, immediately associating him with segregation, defense of Jim Crow, the Dixiecrat movement, and his strident conservatism well before conservatism was in fashion. Crespino doesn't seek to exonerate Thurmond or to fashion a hagiography to him, but to explain his larger relevance in America's post-World War II politics, and how he effectively gave birth to the modern conservative movement. Crespino grasps and lays bare Thurmond's inherent contradictions and blatant hypocracy that were always hiding just below the surface of the man. How else do you explain a man who was clearly quite segregationist, yet at the same time who fathered a daughter with a black woman? Or for that matter a staunch New Dealer willing to break with his party over segregation, potentially throwing the 1948 election to the Republicans? For Thurmond it was never about himself, but about the ideas he embraced. Looking around he saw no one else willing to take the lead on the issues he held to and was willing to pick up that banner and lead the charge. Like a modern day John C. Calhoun, Thurmond was willing to stand up to Washington and the political establishment and boldly state what truths he held to be self-evident. It is that aspect of Thurmond that is fascinating. Right or wrong, he was fearless in leading the charge, knowing there were many like him throughout the South and elsewhere that held to these same beliefs. Standing up to your party and your President certainly carries with it many perils, yet Thurmond had the strength of his convictions and if he was going to sin, decided to sin boldly!

The unfolding Civil Rights movement of the 1950s showed that Thurmond was the tip of the spear and that many other white Southern Democrats shared his fear of what would come to pass. Other Southern governors, senators, congressmen, and legislators quickly realized that the changes Thurmond warned of in 1948 were coming to pass. While Thurmond certainly wasn't directing or orchestrating them, he was the spokesman and theorist for their era. Thurmond's attuned political skill also gave him sense the sands were shifting. The election of fellow Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 told him that the segregation accommodating era of Democratic politics was coming to an end. The resurgence of more conservative elements in the Republican party following the 1956 elections and the ascendancy of Richard Nixon meant Republican were increasingly more in line with Southern values than Democrats. Sensing that shift in the winds Thurmond made a bold move to change his party affiliation at a time when few in the South would have dared or contemplated it. Southern Democrats had always been more conservative socially and fiscally than other members of their party and as Crespino points out Thurmond's breakaway presaged the ascendancy of George Wallace, Nixon's "Southern Strategy", the Moral Majority, and more. While Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan represented a Western variant of conservativism (socially liberal, fiscally conservative) it would take a while for the broader Republican party to create the big tent that could include Southern conservatives.

A polarizing subject such as Strom Thurmond could lead authors to create a polemic or a hagiography, but Crespino does neither here. What results is a well balanced, nuanced, and indepth appraisal of Thurmond and his broader meaning and relevance not just to America's past, but it's present and future. Crespino is not an apologist, but presents Thurmond as he existed. Readers wanting to hate and despise Thurmond as well as those hoping he will be lionized with come away with a new reassessment of Thurmond. If only more political biographies were as well written as this...
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4.3 out of 5 stars (13 customer reviews)
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Todd Bartholomew

Location: Atlanta, GA USA

Top Reviewer Ranking: 493