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Jenkins: NC's connection to Watergate

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comMay 29, 2013 

For Rufus Edmisten, then the cherub-faced aide to North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, the most indelible Watergate moment, looking back 40 years later, was not the resignation of President Richard Nixon or the many memorable things that preceded it.

As he led a tour of the terrific Watergate exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History, Edmisten pointed to a photograph of Nixon’s attorney general, the rough-and-gruff John Mitchell, a man whose stare could wither a fresh-blooming daffodil.

“There was a preliminary meeting with Mitchell in our little office,” Edmisten recalled of his days as a counsel to Ervin’s Senate Watergate Committee (which began hearings on May 17,1973). “This was a powerful man who had been at the height of that power. His hands were shaking so badly that he couldn’t hold his pipe steady enough to light it. I held his hand for him. He looked at me and said, ‘Thank you. That was so very kind of you.’”

The moment was symbolic to Edmisten. The once-mighty Nixon loyalist, a man at the center of the scandal that would bring down a president, was humbled and yes, scared. And grateful for a small expression of compassion.

His reasoning, as it turned out, was sound. Ervin, the self-proclaimed country lawyer from the mountains of North Carolina, was leading hearings that would captivate a national television audience for weeks and bring a two-bit break-in at Washington’s Watergate complex into America’s conscience and into American history.

Watergate was 40 years ago, if one puts the Ervin hearings at the center of it. For those in my generation and older, the museum exhibit (Ken Howard is the museum director, ReaLana Poteat the exhibit curator) is a touchstone, for the magnitude of a scandal and for the passage of time. (Double-knit leisure suits were high fashion.) It’s also an historic monument of sorts to North Carolina. Ervin, with his Biblical stories, his humor and on occasion his temper directed at wrongdoers, led the way, but young Rufus Edmisten, a fellow mountaineer and not that far out of law school, sat behind him, pipe in his mouth, leaning in to listen to or advise the senator as the committee’s chief deputy counsel.

Edmisten used some of his Watergate notoriety, and a natural gift for one-on-one campaigning, to win the attorney general’s office, go down swinging in a race for governor in 1984 and then be elected secretary of state.

Today, with many of his artifacts in the museum display, he’s a guide of sorts. There is the subpoena he delivered to the president’s men, asking for the infamous tapes. There is a picture of Mark Felt, revealed as the “Deep Throat” source of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, who got crucial information from him. “We thought it might be him,” Edmisten said. “It had to be someone with access to all branches of government, and he was with the FBI.”

Visitors can play video of portions of the Ervin hearings, and see “Senator Sam” offering witnesses examples of God’s wisdom and his Mama’s. Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, a cocky fellow, asked Ervin at one point, “How do you know that, Mr. Chairman?” Ervin responded “Because I can understand the English language. It is my mother’s tongue!” Ehrlichman never recovered.

When did Edmisten know the president was doomed? “When (Nixon aide Alexander) Butterfield revealed a taping system in the White House, we knew,” he said. “That meant it was all over.” And indeed it was. The exhibit includes samples of virtually everything, right down to the tools used to break in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which resulted in the arrests, and the trials, and the disclosures both voluntary and involuntary that took Nixon to the end on Aug. 9, 1974.

Other North Carolinians who were connected to Ervin’s committee and the investigation have risen to prominence in the law or business, but came in to attend the opening of the exhibit: Lacy Presnell III, Mike Carpenter, Jim Stewart, David Erdman, Walker Nolan and John Elmore. One, Raleigh attorney Gene Boyce, was absent because he was making a speech...on Watergate.

The scandal played, by the reckoning of some historians, a significant role in America’s future: Without the scandal, Nixon would have finished his second term and set the stage for the political advance of more moderate Republicans. Ronald Reagan might not have made it to the national spotlight and the White House.

Absent him, the conservative wave in the Republican Party could have been a ripple. “Tea party” might have been something confined to 8-year-olds and plastic cups and saucers.

But it did happen, all of it. Sam Ervin got famous, and fan mail came from Abigail (“Dear Abby”) Van Buren (it’s in the exhibit). Fred Thompson, minority counsel for the committee, became a senator and then an actor. And Rufus Edmisten still enjoys a public life that has brought him happiness and victory and sadness and defeat, but a life that for him, remains in part defined by an incredible story on which the pages first turned 40 years ago.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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