November 27, 1978 12:00 PM

In South Carolina tales have grown up about Sen. Strom Thurmond, like the one that he’s such a compulsive campaigner he could strike up a conversation with a doorknob—and persuade it to vote. But when Thurmond ran for reelection this fall—at 75—it was his young family who were featured in almost all of the TV spots and dispatched to the hustings. At a time when the electorate tends to be anti-incumbent and ageist, it didn’t exactly hurt Republican Thurmond to be married to a former Miss South Carolina who was one year old when he ran for President (in 1948) and bore him four children after he was 68.

While Strom was in Washington being senatorial, his wife, Nancy, now 32, suddenly stopped being the silent partner. Not everyone was charmed, as she and the kids, 2 to 7, crisscrossed the state in a flashy camper called Strom-Trek. The youngsters wore VOTE FOR MY DADDY T-shirts (Nancy didn’t). “It makes me want to throw up,” said an aide of Thurmond’s Democratic opponent, Charles “Pug” Ravenel, a 40-year-old former Harvard quarterback. But despite all the weight of President Carter (plus Chip and Miss Lillian), Ravenel lost, 44 percent to 56 percent. “Nancy’s a top-notch campaigner,” brags the senator. “She generates as many ideas as a dog does fleas.”

Washington wiseacres may point out, as one did, that the veteran Thurmond “has probably got one job for every family in South Carolina” and was thus unassailable. Some also elbow each other about the way ol’ Strom tends to forget names and repeat himself on the stump these days, but nobody says it to his face. Thurmond still jogs three miles every morning, after a warm-up that includes weight lifting and 75 pushups. Denying rumors that he takes hormones or silicone injections, Strom credits a low-sugar, high-protein diet and 20 kinds of vitamins a day. “You’ve got to get the food in your bloodstream, then you’ve got to pump it out over your body to your cells,” he asserts. “Strom looks so young,” says his wife (a little generously), “even I can’t figure it out.”

When Nancy Moore, 22, of Aiken, S.C. became engaged to the 65-year-old senator in 1968, a Columbia newspaper ran a picture of Nancy in a bathing suit with the formal announcement. Strom recalls that “senators up here and others may have gotten the impression that I married her strictly for being a beauty queen. I didn’t turn her down for that reason, but she’s modest and dignified and she’s a girl with high ideals she instills into our children. She doesn’t allow them to use any filthy words.” Like Strom, she doesn’t smoke or drink.

Thurmond was born in Edgefield, S.C, the son of a lawyer and politician. After graduating from Clemson, he taught high school while reading law at night. At 35, he became the youngest circuit judge in the state, but stepped down to join the Army and fight in World War II. Discharged as a lieutenant colonel, with 18 decorations and five battle stars, he was elected governor in 1947, and that year married his secretary, Jean Crouch, then 21 and herself a Miss South Carolina. (He was 44.) With Thurmondian flair, he proposed in a letter dictated to her, and she answered “yes” by interoffice mail.

He ran for President in 1948 on the racist States Rights ticket, taking away 39 electoral votes from party standard-bearer Harry Truman. But he returned to the Democrats, went to the Senate in 1954 and hasn’t lost an election since, though he switched to the Republican party in 1964, angered by Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights program and attracted by Barry Goldwater’s campaign. After his first wife died of cancer in 1960, Thurmond’s Senate office became renowned for its blondes, but Strom was reclusive. “I never was much of a social hound,” he says.

Nancy Moore, daughter of a chemical engineer, was a student at Duke when she was picked Miss South Carolina in 1965 (and made the top 10 in the Miss America pageant). Some constituents start getting notes and phone calls from Thurmond as early as kindergarten graduation; Nancy had received a letter after she won a high school award, but she was nonetheless thrilled when he called after her coronation: “I always admired him a great deal.” When the two met a month later at the York Grape Festival, Nancy sagely proposed to the sponsoring Jaycees that maybe the senator would like to say a few words. He would. Thurmond had her forgetting about her boyfriend, a fellow student, and interning in his office before summer was out. Three years later, after Nancy had entered law school, Strom proposed. “I didn’t want to ruin his career,” she says, and hedged for five weeks. Her parents, who are younger than Strom, were skeptical too, but Nancy decided, “I loved him more than law school.”

Nancy doesn’t recall discussing children but, Strom says, winking, “You can be sure I always had it in mind.” (His first marriage was childless.) “They are the quadruple blessings of our marriage,” says Mother. The Thurmonds live in suburban McLean, Va., although for the past two years Nancy and the children have rented a house in Columbia, S.C., where young Nancy, 7, was enrolled in an integrated school. (Blacks now make up about a quarter of South Carolina’s registration, and about 8 percent of them voted for Thurmond this fall.)

In spite of his 1972 hair transplant and a reddish-brown dye job, Strom still looks like he could be Nancy’s father, but he has a not-so-fatherly way of gazing at her. “I love her very ardently,” he declares. With his children he is grandfatherly and indulgent, although he’s already enrolled his boys in Charleston’s military college, the Citadel, for the classes of 1993 and 1998, “to teach them discipline, cleanliness and promptness—and to command.”

Even after 10 years of obviously total marriage, people still speculate about the Thurmonds. “They have no friends,” says one Southern congressman. “They never entertain except in the Senate dining room.” Another woman described Nancy as “an enigma—I don’t know what makes that marriage tick.” Some suspect Nancy has political ambitions of her own—”She knows she’s the best thing that ever happened to him,” says one state chairman, and the senator has said this is his last term. Nancy insists, “I have no interest in politics myself. I’m just helping Strom. One day I was standing between two lanes of traffic handing out campaign brochures and I thought: ‘I have to love him, because this is a real labor of love.’ ”

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