Saturday, June 19, 2004


Great American Myth #1

I thought it would be fun to take a look at some fictions in our political life. I'll call them the "Great American Myths." Where to begin?

Great American Myth #1: A conspiracy is impossible among a large group of people. Someone will always blab.

By ‘conspiracy’ I mean an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons; plot1

The strange affair of Strom Thurmond’s daughter.

For those of you who were on another planet in December of last year, I will summarize the facts: In 1925 a white Strom Thurmond, lately of the United States Senate, sired a daughter by his black maid, Ms. Carrie Butler. The daughter, Ms. Essie Mae Williams, revealed this voluntarily to the press upon her father’s death.

The Thurmond family attorney made this statement –
As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak for himself, the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' claim to her heritage. We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams.

After 78 years, the story—which had actually been told in several outlets over the course of the years—ceased to be “rumor,” “conjecture,” or “politics.” It became a “fact.” We, of course, at that point “moved on.”

Now I really don’t care about Strom, or his hypocrisy. But I do care that he carried four states as a “Dixiecrat” when he ran for President while campaigning on an antimiscegenistic platform, which is to say that he was totally against blacks and whites getting together and doing the nasty.

I care because it says something about us as voters – how we are manipulated, and ultimately disenfranchised. To be sure, if had I been voting in one of those states, I would have voted against him. But I also believe that most of those voters were sincere, and that they deserved a better racist than Strom Thurmond.

I believe they deserved a press that would have exposed his hypocrisy. It would have almost certainly made a difference.

First, I doubt the Dixiecrats could have come up with a more compleat racist than Strom Thurmond after his hypocrisy had been revealed. Left without a viable candidate, many Southern voters would have turned their attention to more pressing issues. Harry Truman won the general election anyway for the Democrats, but it was a squeaker. And the whole affair was later to give Republicans ideas, the consequences of which are still with us today – if you know what I mean.

Second, he might not have been allowed to stay in the Senate until the lights went out. (I haven’t the heart to review his record in the Senate.)

But I was talking about conspiracies, wasn’t I? So you might wonder if this was really a conspiracy.

Referring back to the definition, Was it “evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious”?

Well, I’ll give you "evil, unlawful or treacherous,” if you’ll give me “surreptitious.”

Was it a “plan?”

Yes, it was “a scheme of action or procedure.” The plan was first to remain silent, then to issue a demurrer2, should the question be raised.

Was it “formulated in secret between two or more people”?

You bet it was!

So here we have a conspiracy initiated by Strom and his paramour that was extended to include his family, her family, many of his daughter’s university classmates,3 his office staff,4 and major newspapers5 along with the leadership of the two parties, and all well-connected South Carolina politicos.6

I think we’re going to have to accept more responsibility for the world around us, folks. And that means, among other things, that the job of spotting frauds and conspiracies cannot be left solely to the lunatic, the holy man and the intelligence services.

There is a type of conspiracy that really might better be called a “metaconspiracy,” because it inheres in the very definition of ‘conspiracy,’ and that is—the conspiracy of silence. And sometimes it's so all-encompassing that it doesn't even matter if someone blabs.


1 Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, 1989. I know I could have gotten a definition from the Internet, but I like my definitions to remain stable. [back]

2 As was related in the Washington Post
In 1972, the senator exploded in anger when an Edgefield newspaper editor and longtime enemy, W.W. Mims, printed a front-page headline that Thurmond had sired "colored offspring." The headline offered no supporting evidence, and Thurmond called it "too scandalous" to warrant comment.

3 The Black Commentator carries a recollection of Strom while he was Governor of South Carolina—

... Leo Kerford, a professor at the law school at the time, recalls seeing Thurmond and Washington together on campus. "He would come and visit and sit out on the center court with her," Kerford said. "He wasn't trying to hide it.

It was so well-known," he said, "I believe it was a fact. The talk was that he would visit her and hand her money. Her girlfriends in the dormitory would wait for her to come back with money from Daddy."


By the early 1990s, Thurmond's staff conceded to a Penthouse magazine writer that the senator had frequent visits in Washington from his friend "Essie Williams." (Washington Post)

5 WaPo relates, in its own demurrer.

Williams's account resurrects one of the oldest stories in 20th-century southern political folklore.... Noted political writer Robert Sherrill described an alleged daughter without providing a name in a 1968 book. The Post identified Williams by her maiden name in 1992, in a lengthy account of Williams's relationship with Thurmond. The article reported that "both Thurmond and the supposed daughter have denied that he is her father, and no one has provided evidence that he is."

6 According to Ms. Washington's attorney's press statement,

... Essie Mae Washington would visit her father and renowned segregationist Strom Thurmond in the private quarters of his senate office in Washington D.C. She would always be given money for support and then chauffeur driven to the train station for her trip back home. All of the Washington and South Carolina staffers knew who she was to the Governor and later Senator Thurmond.
If the staffers knew, so did the rest of Congress. [back]

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