Evidence suggests Thurmond 24-hour filibuster record is debatable
During a Senate filibuster on Wednesday led by Rand Paul, there were repeated references to Strom Thurmond’s record 1957 filibuster. But some evidence suggests that Thurmond didn’t follow Senate rules for his 24-hour speech.
In fact, a 1957 article in Time magazine says that Thurmond left the Senate floor about 4 ½ hours into his 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster to use a bathroom. And there’s other evidence that Thurmond went into the Senate cloakroom to eat a sandwich, and left the Senate floor.
Those two acts alone would at the very least cast some serious doubt on claims that Thurmond staged a continuous filibuster, let alone one that conformed to the Senate rules of order.
And ironically, two iconic Republican figures, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, were helping Thurmond, as well as Lyndon Johnson.
During his filibuster on Wednesday and early Thursday, Paul stuck to the rules, even though he allowed about a dozen senators to ask extended questions (which is permissible). Paul chewed on some candy for energy and didn’t take a break from holding the Senate floor to use the facilities.
Thurmond took the floor to object to the Civil Right Act on August 28 and August 29, 1957, to make a stand, too, but his filibuster seemed to be in trouble about four hours after it started.
In 1996, CNN reprinted online an article from Time, datelined September 9, 1957, that said Goldwater became concerned about Thurmond around 1 a.m. and asked how long he would keep speaking. Thurmond indicated he’d be done in one hour. (He had started at 8:54 p.m. of the previous day.)
“Goldwater asked that Thurmond temporarily yield the floor to him for an insertion in the Congressional Record. Thurmond happily consented–and used the few minute interim to head for the bathroom (for the only time during his speech). He returned and began talking again,” Time said.
Other reports indicate that Goldwater made his comments at 1:30 a.m. Even if Thurmond returned to the floor quickly, that would put his continuous filibuster, after he took back the floor, at a still-impressive 20 hours.
“At 7:21 p.m. Thurmond broke the old Senate record for long-windedness, set by Oregon’s Wayne Morse in the 1953 Tidelands Oil filibuster,” said Time. “But Morse still holds the Senate record for Spartan retention of the body’s juices: he had no benefit of parliamentary pause.”
On April 24 and 25, 1953, Morse spoke 22 hours and 26 minutes, breaking the previous record of 18 hours set by his mentor, Robert La Follette, in 1908. Morse was objecting to Tidelands Oil legislation.
Since then, Senator Alphonse D’Amato spoke for 23 hours and 30 minutes in 1986 to debate a military bill.
The Senate still recognizes Thurmond’s filibuster as the longest on record, but other accounts in Thurmond biographies show he benefited from a less-than-strict enforcement of filibuster rules. The presiding Senate officers, including Vice President Nixon, ignored the infractions.
In her book, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, Nadine Cohodas says Thurmond entered the cloakroom to eat his sandwich on the afternoon of August 29. The Congressional Record indicates that Thurmond yielded the floor to Senator Lyndon Johnson.
An aide advised Thurmond to keep the door open and keep one foot on the Senate floor.
But Thurmond went all the way inside the room as an oath of office ceremony for William Proxmire. Nixon, as the president officer, either didn’t see the incident or decided to look away.
Just before that, in a discussion with William Langer of North Dakota, the same aide saw Thurmond take a seat during his filibuster, which is another potential violation and a pretext for a rival senator to grab the floor and end the filibuster. Herman Talmadge, the presiding officer, ignored the act.
And newspaper accounts indicate Thurmond sat down again as Proxmire took his oath, but under permissible circumstances.
“It took unanimous consent agreements for the interruptions if Thurmond was to get a chance to sit. Under strict enforcement of Senate rules, he would have lost the floor otherwise. There was such an agreement for the Proxmire ceremony,” said the newspaper accounts.
Also, in the Congressional Record, Senator William Knowland of California at 6:45 a.m. asked Thurmond if his purpose was to hold the floor to set a Senate record. Thurmond said the filibuster was for “educational purposes.”
Thurmond kept speaking until 9 p.m.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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