Not since Elvis visited Richard Nixon at the White House had Washington D.C. rocked quite so hard as on July 18, 1994, when Vermont senator and Grateful Dead superfan Patrick Leahy introduced his 91-year-old colleague Strom Thurmond to the psychedelic jam band’s hirsute frontman, Jerry Garcia.
Two days prior, Leahy and his wife Marcelle had attended a Dead concert at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. As one of the D.C. establishment’s most prominent Deadheads, Leahy got to sit on stage with the band as it plowed through chestnuts like “Loose Lucy,” “Crazy Fingers,” and “One More Saturday Night.” After the show, a blissed-out Leahy approached Garcia and invited him and the band to join him for lunch on Capitol Hill that coming Monday. “Great idea!” Garcia enthused, although he balked at having to wear a tie for the occasion.
On Monday, Dead mainstays Garcia, guitarist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh, and drummer Mickey Hart gathered around a large round lunch table in the Senate Dining Room. Joining them were Leahy, Senator Barbara Boxer of California, and actor Woody Harrelson, a friend of the band. The unusual assemblage quickly attracted a crowd of gawkers. “Senate staff members don’t always recognize foreign dignitaries, but they certainly recognized the Dead,” noted Joe Jamele, Leahy’s press secretary. Senator David Pryor of Arkansas dropped by to shake hands with Garcia. But it was the unexpected apparition of Thurmond, the one-time bastion of segregation, that would have tongues clucking all over the nation’s capital. “Strom must’ve thought we were a death cult or something,” Hart later remembered. “’Grateful Dead’ wasn’t on the tip of his tongue.” Neither was Garcia’s name, apparently. The ancient South Carolinian sidled up to the “Uncle John’s Band” composer and greeted him in grandiose Dixie style.
“I understand you’re the leadah of this heah organization!” Thurmond bellowed, while Leahy looked on and cackled maniacally. That’s depending on whose account you believe. Others reported the salutation as “Boy, I understand you’re a rock star!”
According to Leahy’s own recollection of the encounter, which he related to an interviewer in 2007, Thurmond then repeatedly buffeted Garcia about the shoulders with good-natured blows while regaling him with boasts about his institutional longevity.
“I’m the oldest member of the United States Senate, you hear me, boy?” Thurmond bragged. “Now when you go back to Texas—”
“California, sir,” Garcia interrupted.
“Wherever!” Thurmond thundered. “When you git home, you tell ‘em you met the oldest member of the United States Senate, you hear me, boy! Because they’ll want to know that, see? Oldest member of the U.S. Senate, see? You git me, boy?”
After what seemed like an eternity, Thurmond at last let go of Garcia’s person long enough for the stunned rock god to recover.
“Jerry! Do you know who that was?” Hart asked.
“Oh yeah, I do,” Garcia replied. After a pause, he summed up the encounter with Thurmond: “You know, I never had an experience anywhere like that, even when I used to drop acid.”