Museum exhibit shows Watergate as TV drama with North Carolina stars

mquillin@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2013 

  • If you go

    “Watergate: Political Scandal & the Presidency” is located in the first-floor lobby of the N.C. Museum of History, 5 East Edenton Street.

    The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

    Admission is free.

— The N.C. Museum of History opens a new exhibit today called “Watergate: Political Scandal and the Presidency” that could as easily be named “North Carolina and the Birth of Reality TV.”

The opening is tied to the 40th anniversary of the first televised hearing of the U.S. Senate Select Committee’s investigation into Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential re-election campaign. The scandal began with the arrest of five men who had broken into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington in June 1972. It unfolded for the American public in a way no other government affair had: in their dens, on the TV screen.

An estimated 85 percent of U.S. households are said to have tuned into the hearings at some point before they concluded in August 1974. North Carolinians had a special reason to watch; U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of Morganton chaired the proceedings, and he had a slew of young North Carolina lawyers working behind the scenes, interviewing witnesses before they came to testify, looking into how campaign money had been raised and spent.

“In my opinion, Sam Ervin was the first and the greatest of the reality TV stars,” said Dan Smith, dean of learning resources and technology at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, and curator of the Senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. Library and Museum housed there. Some of the artifacts in the state museum’s new exhibit are on loan from the Ervin library, including the distinctive gavel, with Cherokee beadwork on the handle, which Ervin used during the proceedings.

With hundreds of cable TV channels and endless diversions on the internet competing for attention, audiences now might find it difficult to imagine going home for lunch to catch an hour of the proceedings that were broadcast live for five hours a day, five days a week, or tuning in to a rebroadcast each night.

“I think it would take something apocalyptic to get the nation’s interest in Congressional hearings to the point that they were fixated on Watergate,” Smith said. “The government and the media cry ‘wolf’ so often now, people are burned out. They’re desensitized. But back then, they were transfixed.”

The exhibit, put together by RaeLana Poteat, curator of political and social history for the state museum, begins with visitors encountering a wall with a timeline and an introduction to the players in the Watergate scandal and the investigation that followed. After 40 years, Poteat said, many of the museum’s visitors have forgotten — or have never heard — the names of the Nixon associates who helped to plan the break-in at the Watergate to spy on Democratic party workers, those who helped cover up the burglary later, and members of Congress, the judiciary and the press who helped expose it.

Keeping it 1970s-real

Much of what Poteat typically gathers for exhibits at the Museum of History is a century or two old. But for this exhibit, she spent much of her time going through archival video and audio files for 40-year-old samples from the hearings, and picked through the museum’s own artifact collection for items that screamed 1973.

A bank of video screens that play a loop of newsreel footage symbolizes the number of TV’s that were tuned to the hearings. A re-created living room, furnished with a period North Carolina-made sofa, a console television, amber-glass table lamps and a TV tray set up to serve lunch, symbolizes the personal connection people developed with the events in Washington.

Other items in the exhibit show the cultural fascination with Watergate that developed as the drama went on. Entrepreneurs created Watergate-themed board games, card games and music. Liquor bottles and T-shirts featured Sam Ervin’s likeness.

The exhibit will also experiment with the use of QR codes that visitors can scan with smart phones to bring up additional information from the museum’s website,

Photos and other artifacts in the exhibit came from North Carolina native Rufus Edmisten, who worked for Ervin for a decade and was a staff counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee. He interviewed some of the witnesses before they testified, handled some of the logistics for the hearings, and served the subpoena to the White House for the Watergate tapes that showed Nixon staff had lied to Congress.

Knowing history as it happened

Edmisten’s copy of the subpoena, now part of the Southern Historical Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library, is included in the exhibit, though it will rotate in and out with other documents over the duration of the showing to prevent its being damaged by light.

Edmisten kept a copy of the Nixon subpoena, boxes of photos that were handed out by news photographers at the end of each day, political cartoons, and piles of paperwork from the Watergate days for this very sort of exhibit, he said.

“Of course I knew some history was being made,” said Edmisten, who returned to North Carolina when Ervin retired. He was elected attorney general and, later, secretary of state. He now practices law in Raleigh.

Working with Ervin was the experience of a lifetime, Edmisten said. Through his work on the hearings, Ervin became a folk hero to some, who admired his “aw-shucks” country lawyer routine that belied his deep understanding of constitutional law. Ervin, who died in 1985, became a villain to others, who believed he was leading an unpatriotic attack on the presidency that caused people to doubt the integrity of their government.

“We were getting 40,000 letters a week,” Edmisten said, many of them angry. “People would rip a page out of the Bible and write on it, ‘You’re going to hell,’ and send it in the mail.”

Viewed from the distance of 40 years, the hearings and the investigation can be seen more objectively, as a lesson in the way government can right itself when it goes wrong. The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 10, 2014, one day after the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation of the presidency, tries to present it that way.

“And it was a good story,” Edmisten said of Watergate. “It was a who-done-it that had all the elements of a good novel. Dirty tricks. Great characters.

“People are still intrigued by it.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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