Commentary

Christensen: Sam Ervin was the perfect man for Watergate

rchristensen@newsobserver.comMarch 4, 2014 

Sen. John F. Kennedy (center) talks with Governor Luther Hodges (right) during one of his 1960 Presidential campaign stops in North Carolina. Furture Governor Terry Sanford is to the left of Kennedy and Sen. Sam Ervin is at the far right of the photo.

1960 NEWS & OBSERVER ARCHIVE PHO — newsobserver.com Buy Photo

North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. was “the perfect man” for the Watergate investigation.

The Morganton Democrat was an expert on the U.S. Constitution and was deeply concerned about what governmental snooping was doing to individual liberties. At a time when a Democratic Congress was investigating a Republican president, Ervin was a conservative who was widely respected by his colleagues. And the veteran judge had demonstrated a steel backbone – whether it was standing up to Sen. Joe McCarthy or charging a German machine gun nest in World War I.

So said Katherine Scott, assistant historian with the U.S. Senate, who took part in a panel discussion on the Watergate hearings last week at the N.C. Museum of History.

The Watergate hearings were high political drama that was televised nationally in the summer of 1973 – and watched by tens of millions of Americans as the Senate investigated a president and all the president’s men.

North Carolinians played an outsized role in the hearings, and not just because President Richard Nixon was a Duke University law school graduate. With Ervin as chairman of the Watergate committee, much of his staff were North Carolinians.

Two of those staffers participated in last week’s panel discussion: Rufus Edmisten, who went on to become a North Carolina attorney general and later was elected secretary of state; and Eugene Boyce, a Raleigh attorney.

It is because of the North Carolina connection that the N.C. History Museum is holding an exhibit, “Watergate: Political Scandal & the Presidency,” through Aug. 10. As part of the exhibit, journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will speak May 15 at the Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh.

More than a break-in

Watergate was more than just about a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate apartment and office complex.

It came to mean a whole series of illegal activities by a paranoid White House that felt under siege by anti-war protesters and was worried about the president’s re-election. The president’s men were involved in burglarizing psychiatric files, accepting illegal corporate contributions, faking evidence against political opponents, planting agents provocateurs to incite radicals to illegal activities, and using the IRS as a tool to attack the administration’s enemies. When the Watergate burglars were caught, the White House began paying hush money to cover up links to their crimes.

Watergate, Ervin once said, was an effort, “to destroy, insofar as the presidential election of 1972 was concerned, the integrity of the process by which the president of the United States is nominated and elected.”

Clashes with Nixon

Ervin’s role is interesting. People sometimes forget that Ervin, a Southern Democrat, was a fiscal and social conservative, a foreign policy hawk and a segregationist. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, the standard bearer for the conservative movement in North Carolina, greatly admired Ervin, and the two had a lifelong friendship.

Ervin was also a strict constitutional constructionist before the phrase became a political buzzword on the right. While he shared many of Nixon’s political views, Ervin strongly distrusted the president. He clashed with Nixon over laws the president championed, including allowing police to enter the homes of suspects without knocking, and his use of military intelligence units to spy on anti-war protesters.

“The supreme value of civilization,” Ervin told the Senate, “is the freedom of the individual, which is simply the right of the individual to be free of government tyranny.”

Last week, Ervin’s former aides told war stories. Boyce, who was assistant chief counsel, recalled the day he and a fellow aide discovered the system for taping conversations in the White House, which would eventually lead to Nixon’s resignation.

Edmisten, the deputy chief counsel, recalled delivering the Senate subpoenas for the tapes to the White House.

The spotlight, Edmisten said, was intense. At its height, the Watergate committee was getting 40,000 pieces of correspondence per week.

“We got more hate mail from North Carolina than from elsewhere,” Edmisten said.

What made the Watergate investigation work, Edmisten said, was the bipartisan cooperation and mutual respect between Ervin and the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee.

Edmisten wonders whether that would even be possible today.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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