The Magazine

Tar Heel Statesman

The Constitution did well by Sam Ervin, and vice versa.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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When in the spring of 1973 Ervin was enlisted as chairman of the Senate select committee on presidential campaign practices, soon universally known as the Watergate committee, Nixon's White House henchmen breathed a sigh of relief. They thought they were up against a blowhard partisan fuddy-duddy. They were wrong in all respects. Ervin was not a partisan figure, but we know now that he didn't buy the White House line that Nixon himself was uninvolved in the criminal follies. "It has been my experience," Ervin observed privately, "that the madam of a whorehouse is very seldom a virgin."

John Ehrlichman, the powerful and cocky White House counselor, felt the edge of Ervin's wit when he challenged the senator one day over "inherent" presidential powers. "How do you know that, Mr. Chairman?" Ehrlichman demanded, aggressively jutting his chin. "Because," came the response, "I can understand the English language. It is my mother tongue." There was a moment of stunned silence in the Senate caucus room, then an uproar of laughter and applause. It was high political theater, and a transformative moment.

Professor Campbell argues, correctly I believe, that Ervin's labors as chairman of two important Senate subcommittees--on constitutional rights and on the separation of powers--were a rehearsal for the Watergate moment. Issues of executive overreach had festered and Ervin's hearings on personal privacy (notably the Army's irregular surveillance of private citizens) and the dodgy use of impoundment as an ideological weapon became the groundwork for a significant counterattack.

That counterforce has faltered, of late, for want of any legislator of comparable stature and learning to sustain it. In any case, the executive excesses of the 1960s and '70s set the stage for a whiggish reaction, and Sam Ervin was nothing if not a small-w whig, a determined apostle of legislative supremacy. Someone called him "solicitor general for the legislative branch." He was that, exactly.

What was too little appreciated in his hour of fame was that Ervin's libertarianism had a long, colorful history. As a young state legislator in 1925 he had played a key role in sparing North Carolina the embarrassment of an anti-evolution "monkey law." His comment on the Poole Bill (as the Tar Heel variant was called) was that it "absolved the monkeys" of responsibility for human mischief.

As an observer of the Sam Ervin saga from the perspective of North Carolina newspaper offices over almost two decades, I learned that when one differed with him (for instance, over civil rights bills), his views, however retrograde in appearance, were never mean, capricious, or irrational. If you objected to them you could count on a friendly, measured letter to the editor in response.

Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers is a scholarly and readable book, and a plausible reading of this protean, colorful, and monumental figure. But a significant flaw must be noted. The author has adopted the theory that, as an exemplar of North Carolina civility, Sam Ervin was erecting a façade, prompted less by conviction than by the urge to preserve the state's reputation for moderacy.

There is something in this, as in all academic theories. But at bottom the theory is patronizing and misleading. It trivializes the give-and-take of political conflict as, in essence, an exercise in the higher public relations. The theory becomes a leitmotif in this book, constantly reiterated; and the footnotes confirm that the author has contracted this condescending illusion from a celebrated book by Prof. William Chafe about the Greensboro response to the challenges of the civil rights era: Civility and Civil Rights. Chafe is an able and diligent historian, but this now-canonical interpretation of the Greensboro example (and inferences from it regarding North Carolina as a whole) misconceives a civic ethos, and consequently that of Sam Ervin Jr. himself.

Whatever one thought of his causes, he played the great game of politics earnestly, and for keeps.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., an editor and columnist in North Carolina and Washington for almost half-a-century, is the author, most recently, of a novel, Lions at Lamb House, about Sigmund Freud and Henry James.