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The Seniority of Strom Thurmond; Aged Senator Clings to Office
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.
Subjects: Senators; Personal profiles; Aging
Author: Merida, Kevin
Date: Apr 26, 2001
Start Page: A.01
Section: A SECTION

Whenever Thurmond needs him, the senator turns his head slightly to the right and [George Lauffer] comes within whispering range. Thurmond is at the hearing for half an hour, during which he reads, uneasily, two brief statements. The rest of the time -- that is, when he's not signaling for Lauffer -- is spent gazing into the hearing room and performing a kind of seated ballet with his hands. Thurmond's fingers are long and lean, his skin splotchy, he's wearing an oval band-aid on his forehead. He rubs his upper lip, his right eye, his left eye, his right cheek, his nose, he raises a glass of water to his lips, one sip, then scratches his head, wipes something out of his right eye, strokes his left eyebrow, smooths back his thin reddish hair with both hands.

On his good days, Thurmond can still manage a strong handshake. On most days, just getting up out of his chair and sitting back down is a challenge. Several weeks ago, John Napier, the former South Carolina congressman and a Thurmond friend, dropped by the senator's office. Thurmond motioned Napier to come sit with him. Thurmond pulled an empty chair next to his desk, real close. "I miss you," he told Napier. "Come back and visit me more often. I miss you."

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) pulls a little something from his pocket, all wrapped in shiny gold-green cellophane. "He just gave me this," says Roberts, smiling. "Let's see -- Golden Butter Toffee." Thurmond had called Roberts over on the Senate floor. "Pat, will you please give this to Franki." That would be Franki, Roberts's wife, who once worked for Thurmond. Thurmond remembered her birthday. "Don't let appearances fool you," Roberts says. "He's still pretty sharp."

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