"It was fascinating for those who lived through it because it was so jarring," said
To mark Saturday's 40-year anniversary of Nixon's resignation, the
That's one of several Watergate-related events happening in
The exhibit includes a number of fascinating original artifacts, including subpoena papers that Edmisten personally delivered to Nixon's lawyer in
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
"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
"It's been great to work with a source who was on-site at that time," said
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."
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
"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.' (
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."
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