News Column

Watergate at 40, and North Carolina's role in bringing it to light

August 3, 2014

By David Menconi, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Aug. 03--American life has certain collective Where-Were-You-When moments, seminal events that stop all of us in our tracks -- Elvis dying, the Challenger exploding, the Twin Towers falling. For people of a certain age, the 40-year anniversary of one such moment is approaching: the resignation of President Richard Nixon, who was taken down by the Watergate scandal and left office on Aug. 9, 1974.

"It was fascinating for those who lived through it because it was so jarring," said Karl Campbell, an Appalachian State University history professor and political scholar. "It confirmed our worst fears about Nixon and government, and deeply disturbed people. It was real history theater, something you knew was important as it was happening. There was this sense of watching history unfold in real time."

To mark Saturday's 40-year anniversary of Nixon's resignation, the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh will hold a program called "Sam Ervin and Watergate: 40 Years Later," about Morganton-born Sen. Ervin's role in exposing Watergate as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee. Campbell, author of the 2007 book "Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers," will moderate the program with two participants who knew Ervin well: Rufus Edmisten, who served as Ervin's deputy legal counsel during the Watergate hearings; and the senator's grandson, Sam J. Ervin IV, now an N.C. Court of Appeals judge.

That's one of several Watergate-related events happening in Raleigh this week, including Tuesday's reading by former White House counsel John Dean at Quail Ridge Books & Music (promoting his new book, "The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It"). "Sam Ervin and Watergate" also coincides with the N.C. Museum of History's final weekend of "Watergate: Political Scandal & the Presidency," which has been a popular attraction since it opened in May (the interactive part of the exhibit has drawn numerous postcard responses, which are on display).

The exhibit includes a number of fascinating original artifacts, including subpoena papers that Edmisten personally delivered to Nixon's lawyer in July 1973.

Inside the committee

A recent afternoon found Edmisten holding court in front of the framed papers on the wall of the museum, explaining their significance -- a demand that Nixon turn over the White House tapes.

"I was the committee's project manager, so to speak, so I chose myself to take it over. Somebody had to do it," Edmisten said with a chuckle. "But it was a scary day, the first time a subpoena had ever been served on a sitting president. It was highly unusual."

Edmisten had the subpoena papers and other items from the committee in his personal papers, which he donated to UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Historical Collection. They're on loan to the museum for the exhibit.

"It's been great to work with a source who was on-site at that time," said RaeLana Poteat, the museum's curator of political and social history. "That's a unique situation for me. Usually I'm doing history that's much older, so it's nice to meet people who lived through it and had these first-person experiences. I've been amazed at the core that Watergate seems to touch in people who lived through it."

Nowadays, cable news blows up every event into hysterical, overheated proportions whether it seems deserved or not. In the days before the 24-hour news cycle, however, Watergate dominated the media as no other political scandal had before it.

The Ervin-chaired hearings commanded a huge amount of television time, which was not universally well-received. Edmisten said the Watergate committee was getting 40,000 letters a week, many from children upset that they were missing their cartoons during the summer of 1973.

"It's hard for people today to conceptualize because they're already so used to media overload," Poteat said. "But at that time, it was a very big deal. It was about the first big media scandal that got so much coverage. And also, Nixon elicited very strong feelings in people."

Enemies lists

If you think today's culture-war political climate is a recent development, some items in "Watergate: Political Scandal & the Presidency" might change your mind. Perhaps the most attention-getting artifact is one of the Nixon administration's actual "enemies lists" (another document Edmisten found in his papers).

"Dealing with our Political Enemies" is a 1971 memo outlining how the Nixon administration had at its disposal "the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies" through "grant availability, federal contracts, litigation, prosecution, etc." Many of the names on the list are predictable enough, including Jane Fonda and Paul Newman. But some are truly puzzling, especially NFL star Joe Namath (with the New York Jets quarterback's team misidentified as the Giants).

"The context of the times was the Vietnam War, which had really shaken confidence in government," Campbell said. "Then Watergate came along and kind of put an exclamation point on it. That really was the end of the 1960s. Liberals thought it was a great moment, but Watergate ultimately turned out to be a victory for conservatives because Ervin's message was, 'You can't trust the government.' (Ronald) Reagan and others would pick that message up and run with it soon afterward."

Through the whole ordeal, Ervin (who died in 1985) was one of the scandal's few honorable figures. He emerged as a folk hero, and "Senator Sam" T-shirts became popular.

"I think Watergate was uniquely significant and its meaning should not be reduced down to whether or not Nixon lied," Campbell said. "It raised basic questions about individual freedom versus national security, checks and balances in our systems, the public's right to know. That's why it deserves a special place in history, and why 'gate' gets added to the name of every scandal. It's also important to remember old man Ervin, a walking, talking anachronism who symbolized what we learned in civics books. Without his comic relief, and the way he explained the scandal with his mountain stories, the country would have been lost."

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or


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