He was a major influence in Thurmond’s switch to the Republican Party in 1964 and in shaping what became the Republican “Southern strategy,” a racial appeal to the segregationist inclinations of southern whites.
Political strategist, lay minister. Dent was born in St. Matthews on February 21, 1930, the son of Hampton Dent and Sallie Prickett. An Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian, he graduated in 1951 from Presbyterian College with degrees in history and English. He married Betty Francis on August 16, 1951. They have four children.
Dent served as driver for Governor J. Strom Thurmond in his unsuccessful 1950 campaign for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent Olin D. Johnston. After army duty during the Korean War, Dent worked in Washington as a journalist before joining Thurmond’s Senate staff in 1955. Dent soon became his administration assistant (staff director) and political confidant. Enrolling in night school, Dent earned a law degree in 1958 from George Washington University and a master’s in law in 1959 from Georgetown Law School. He was a major influence in Thurmond’s switch to the Republican Party in 1964 and in shaping what became the Republican “Southern strategy,” a racial appeal to the segregationist inclinations of southern whites. As a matter of principle, Dent worked to have the South recognized as an important part of the United States and not taken for granted. He served as state chairman of the Republican Party and had a key role in Richard Nixon’s successful presidential campaign in 1968. After the election, Dent joined the White House staff as counsel to the president. He returned to South Carolina in 1973, however, disillusioned by the deepening Watergate scandal.
Dent practiced law for several years while making the transition to a full-time commitment to an interdenominational lay ministry. He received a graduate certificate in Bible and mission in 1982 from Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University) and spoke in more than one thousand churches. From 1982 to 1985 he served as the first director of the Billy Graham Lay Center in Asheville, North Carolina. He also visited seven countries as part of his lay ministry, concentrating on Romania, which he visited sixteen times. He helped establish a trade agreement between Romania and the United States, and he worked with Providence Hospital in Columbia to develop an exchange program with a hospital in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Dent authored five books. The Prodigal South Returns to Power (1978) is an inside account of national and southern politics during the 1960s and 1970s. Dent’s other writings include A Layman Looks through the Bible for God’s Will (1983), Cover-Up: The Watergate in All of Us (1986), Right vs. Wrong: Solutions to the American Night- mare (1992), and Teaching Jack and Jill Right vs. Wrong in the Homes and Schools (1996).