Jim Jenkins

Maybe he was just supposed to be ‘Rufus’

N.C. Sen. Sam Ervin listens to Rufus Edmisten, deputy chief counsel of the Watergate committee, during hearings which began in 1973.
N.C. Sen. Sam Ervin listens to Rufus Edmisten, deputy chief counsel of the Watergate committee, during hearings which began in 1973.

Perhaps it was supposed to be. And perhaps it’s better that it all turned out as it did.

In 1984, Rufus Edmisten was attorney general of North Carolina and the Democratic Party nominee for governor, and at one point had a 20-point lead on a relatively little-known congressman, Republican Rep. Jim Martin. Yes, Ronald Reagan was running for re-election and ultimately would deliver a drubbing to Democrat Walter Mondale, but none of the Democrats in North Carolina figured that would happen to Rufus – the only name by which he’s ever gone.

He was silver tongued, could speak the lingo of the farmer and the tobacco man and the teacher and the lawyer, could enter a room of strangers and emerge an hour later with their mothers’ names in his memory. If the movie “The Natural” had been made about politics, it surely would have been a profile of Edmisten.

He’d come to the campaign for attorney general in 1974, his first statewide office race, from the blessing of fame that draped around him as a counsel to then-U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, the folksy but brilliant North Carolinian who headed the Senate Watergate Committee and brought Richard Nixon to justice. Stories would emerge later, some true, some half-true and some just plain made up, about how Edmisten managed to get his face on TV while sitting behind Ervin in those hearings that became iconic. But there he was, seemingly more often than a soap opera leading man, pipe in hand and his rather cherubic face leaning in to whisper something to the senator.

The die was cast, or so it was thought, to take Edmisten to the governor’s office and then to the U.S. Senate. For though he had a boost from fame, on the campaign trail he seemed unstoppable, and he knew something about every town, every civic club, every barbecue joint. He had, it seemed, not just kissed the Blarney Stone, but eloped with it.

But Martin proved more formidable than anyone thought, and Rufus was beaten. He’d have another go statewide later as secretary of state, but Jim Hunt would rule another eight years after Martin’s second term, and Rufus Edmisten would be done.

Knowing and seeing him in the years since, it’s hard not to believe that fate was good to him after all.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, said once of her father that he “always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”

Last week, Rufus (we’ll go back now to the true “proper name”) was in his glory at a fund-raising party at the City Club in downtown Raleigh, the occasion being focused on a book reissued after more than 30 years spotlighting his mother’s recipes. Nellie Mae Edmisten was her name. There was Rufus, just four years from 80 now, wearing a chef’s coat and working the room as if he was campaigning, hugging and kissing and making little short speeches and talking about “my mama” and calling the names of some of his guests. His cause, the beneficiary of the evening, was his “Super Kids” crusade to recognize deserving youngsters in need of a hand up for education. They have to have demonstrated the ability to “overcome adversity,” as Edmisten said.

That might mean the death of a parent at an early age, homelessness or other problems. “A lot of them wouldn’t go to college otherwise,” Rufus said, mentioning that 35 kids have gone to college with the help of Super Kids.

For his part, the adversity of political losses have faded in time, giving way to a happier philosophy: “I think I might have fallen victim (had he won) to the stereotypical politician who tries to do everything right and please everybody and would have lost myself. I’ve been foolish, but I’ve never intentionally hurt anybody. I think that I’ve been able to try to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.”

Only Rufus could make that sound profound.

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