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Thursday, 5 December, 2002, 15:29 GMT
US senator celebrates 100th birthday
Strom Thurmond
Thurmond accepted change to survive politically
The longest-serving US senator, Strom Thurmond, a former campaigner for racial segregation and self-confessed ladies' man, is celebrating his 100th birthday.

"God bless you, Strom. The nation and I are grateful for your service," said a statement by President George W Bush, who is scheduled to personally congratulate the politician during Thursday's celebrations.

I love all of you, and especially your wives

Strom Thurmond, addressing fellow senators

The former education administrator, lawyer and war hero, who was first elected to the Senate in 1954, will retire on 3 January.

BBC Washington correspondent Nick Bryant says the senator has become something of a comic figure, almost a museum piece.

In South Carolina, he is one step away from sainthood, although there are black people who say he leaves behind a baneful legacy.

People still talk about the time Mr Thurmond ran for president as a third candidate on a segregationist ticket in 1948.

"There are not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches," the senator said during a campaign speech.

His States' Rights party, nick-named the 'Dixiecrats', carried four southern states in the election but the democrat Harry Truman won, beating the Republican Thomas Dewey.

Years later, the senator hired black aides, supported civil rights legislation, and voted for the creation of the Martin Luther King holiday.

In 1996, his last campaign, he got about 22% of the black vote.

Ladies' man

Nurturing a reputation for a fondness for women, Mr Thurmond surprised former first lady Hillary Clinton by hugging her on her first day in the Senate.

He told colleagues in a recent farewell speech in the Senate: "I love all of you, and especially your wives."

He once expressed his gratitude for female senators saying: "They work hard, look great and we like to look at them."

At the age of 66, he married a former Miss South Carolina beauty queen, who was then 22.

His first child was born two years later and they had three more.

The politician is marking his birthday with a Capitol Hill party with hundreds of former aides, colleagues, family and corporate friends.

A celebration will also be held in his absence in his hometown of Edgefield, South Carolina, where Thurmond was born on 5 December, 1902, and where he plans to spend his retirement.

"Helping people has been my motto all of my political life," he told South Carolina's The State newspaper, the day before his birthday.

"I love helping people. What job could you hold where you can do more for people? Who would have more interest in the people than me? Who would help them more?" he said.

Asked how he felt, Mr Thurmond thrust his right first into the air and said: "I feel like I'm 21".

Those who know the senator credit his long life to diet and exercise and genes - his sister is 93.

Health problems

But some say he has slipped mentally and physically, a decline that began about 10 years ago.

The senator has spent the last year commuting to work from the Walker Reed Medical Centre in Washington DC.

From next year, home will be a specially-built suite in a community hospital in Edgefield, South Carolina.

When he ventures out he will see a life-sized statue of himself in the town square, erected in 1984 to commemorate his career.

See also:

22 Nov 02 | Americas
02 Oct 01 | Americas
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