Until last week, the most depressing filibuster in American history was South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond rambling for 24 hours and 18 minutes in hopes of killing a civil rights bill.
He took just one bathroom break in all that time, yielding the floor for a few minutes so another senator could make an entry in the Congressional Record.
Thurmond’s spectacle of self-indulgence happened in 1957. He was a Democrat then, and Southern Democrats fought to maintain the bigoted system that denied most Black people the right to vote.
The civil rights bill passed 60-15 after Thurmond finally stopped talking. It was weaker than the version Republican President Dwight Eisenhower wanted, but the legislation heightened federal enforcement powers on voting rights.
Racial prejudice flowed openly in 1957. It was the year nine Black kids desegregated all-white Little Rock Central High School as the governor of Arkansas called in the National Guard to stop them.
In this poisonous climate, a bipartisan bloc of U.S. senators rejected Thurmond’s meanderings and took a small step toward decency.
The opposite occurred last week. Republican senators used the filibuster rule to block a bipartisan investigation of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
It was another maneuver to protect former President Donald Trump, who egged on the rioters with his false claims that voter fraud robbed him of a second term.
Legislation approved by the House of Representatives would have established a commission of five Democrats and five Republicans to lead the investigation of the riot. A similar approach was taken in investigating the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and rural Pennsylvania.
The House proposal had majority support in the Senate — 54 in favor and 35 against. But under a Senate rule, that wasn’t good enough to stave off a bill-killing filibuster.
Sixty votes in the 100-member Senate were required to advance the bill and bring debate to a close.
The Senate is evenly divided between the two parties, meaning 10 Republicans would have had to vote with the Democrats to authorize the bipartisan investigation.
Only six Republicans supported formation of the commission. Thirty-five opposed it, and nine other Republicans didn’t vote at all.
The Senate’s system does nothing to inspire confidence in government.
A minority of senators can bury details on an attack on the seat of government.
It can downplay crimes that were intended to keep President Joe Biden’s victory from being certified.
The Republicans who stifled the investigation didn’t want the findings to coincide with next year’s midterm election.
“Electoral fears mattered more than truth and transparency,” said Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.
To be sure, other investigations can proceed. They will face accusations of partisanship, no matter how fair-minded they are.
It would be much more difficult to attack the work of a panel made up of Republicans and Democrats.
Knowing this, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky marshaled his members to stamp out the investigation the public would trust most.
The six Republicans who broke ranks might be punished by their leader. Technically, that’s McConnell. Realistically, it’s Trump. He still sets the tone for the Republican Party.
Trump inspired an insurrection. Yet many of the senators and representatives endangered in the Capitol riot still protect him by stifling an investigation.
More political fallout is coming, as was the case in Thurmond’s era. He bolted from the Democratic Party to become a Republican in 1964, the year of a more sweeping civil rights bill than the one he tried to talk to death.
Some say Thurmond holds the record for the longest filibuster. Others favor the late Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon. Morse in 1953 talked for 22 hours and 26 minutes — less than Thurmond, but Morse supposedly never visited the men’s room.
What’s clearer is Thurmond remained the strongest racist in the Senate — a career politician who lived on the wrong side of history.
Most Senate Republicans run the same risk as they try to sweep away the reality of the Jan. 6 riot.
McConnell is safe politically. He won reelection to his seventh term in November.
Thurmond served even longer, winning election nine times in a Senate career that spanned 48 years.
After all that, his enduring memory is a daylong filibuster to keep the country separate and unequal.