‘That’s Rufus’ captures a colorful political life

Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, left, has friendly chat with former NC Attorney general Rufus Edmisten at the State Fair. in 2005. (N&O file photo)
Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, left, has friendly chat with former NC Attorney general Rufus Edmisten at the State Fair. in 2005. (N&O file photo) Chris Seward

Editor’s note: Rufus L. Edmisten, former North Carolina attorney general and secretary of state, will unveil his memoir, “That’s Rufus,” with a presentation at the N.C. Museum of History on May 30, with a reception at 6 pm in the museum lobby. All parts of the event are open to the public.

“Ha!” Rufus Edmisten shouts almost, at a question as to whether a reception unveiling his new memoir, “That’s Rufus,” is open to all. Well of course, it is, he says, being a fellow who’s been open to the public himself for nearly a half century now, since the spotlight hit him almost literally by reflection in 1973. He was then the right hand to North Carolina’s “Senator Sam” Ervin, who’s Senate Watergate Committee was chewing up one staffer after another aligned with President Richard Nixon, making the conservative Ervin a hero to Nixon’s enemies and for that matter, to mainstream conservatives who had had enough.

There was Young Rufus, chubby cheeks holding a pipe, taking messages from Ervin, on television every day for weeks. And then came the big message from Ervin, who’d brought Edmisten to the staff in part because the young lawyer was, like Ervin, a mountaineer. (Edmisten hailed from a farm outside Boone.) And that message was: Take this subpoena for the White House tapes (revealed in a committee session) to the president.

It’s one of the stories in the book, of course, but Edmisten, now 77, likes to rely more on humor, or on the wisdom bestowed on him by his beloved “Mama,” Nell Edmisten, to move his story along. He moves through his rather remarkable ascent to the attorney general’s office in 1974, his 10 years there and his defeat in the 1984 race for governor, which was supposed to be one more step on his own path to the U.S. Senate. But Ronald Reagan was a lock for re-election, the state’s Democrats were split and Rufus, well, Rufus never was comfortable: “I hated running for governor,” he says, a stunning admission from one who seemed to love politics so much. “I had people telling me to say things I didn’t believe, to do things I didn’t want to do. Hated it!”

A return to public life in the Secretary of State’s office ended with accusations he’d misused his office, though an investigation cleared him. Still, he was done, and for more than 20 years has been a lawyer and lobbyist, a semi-professional gardener, and a resident authority on the greatest political scandal in American history. (Raleigh lawyer Gene Boyce also worked with the Watergate investigation.)

Tidbits from his book: “I think you’ll be OK in the world if you’re just not a jerk to people.” Or from his Mama, “She said, ‘Just be patient and things will work out for you.Things are never as bad as you think they are.’” And in on of his low points: “A person will be known by how they come out of the valley of despair.” He was tested a few times, most notably when Guillain Barre Syndrome put him in the hospital for 10 weeks and had him on a walker for months. “For a while,” he says, almost acknowledging this was a sort of funny irony, “I couldn’t talk. Can you imagine?”

Today, he’s gearing down work but still pushing his Super Kids Foundation, which provides scholarships for kids who have, he says, “overcome adversity.” One young woman was living in a car off and on. Super Kids sent her to St. Mary’s and when she received a special award, Rufus was in the middle of the crowd, crying. “We’ve had 35 people graduate with help from Super Kids,” he says.

He remains sunny, twinkling, smiling and these days, grateful that he followed his Mama’s advice. He grows his garden off Lake Wheeler Road, where he’s lived for decades with is wife, Linda, and a few generations of dogs. And stories … no end to stories. A favorite for a memoir: He was going home to Boone not long ago, stopped in a country store and bought some nabs. “This woman said, ‘Are you who I think you are?’ And I said, ‘Who do you think I am?’ And she said, ‘Aren’t you Rufus?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And she said, ‘I thought you were dead.’” Edmisten laughed with her. And probably could have gotten her vote, one more time.

Jim Jenkins is the retired deputy editorial page editor and columnist for The News & Observer.