Former Sen. Sam Ervin, 88, Watergte Folk Hero, Dies

From a Times Staff Writer

Former Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr., who symbolized to the nation a latter-day Diogenes bent on finding the truth in an era of Watergate lies, died Tuesday in a Winston-Salem, N.C., hospital.

The archetypical Southern storyteller was 88, and doctors said he died of respiratory failure complicated by kidney failure.

On March 30, Ervin had undergone gall bladder surgery at Grace Hospital in his hometown of Morganton and developed kidney failure as a complication. He was transferred Monday to North Carolina Baptist Hospital, where he died.


The Senate’s televised Watergate hearings, over which Ervin presided in 1973, catapulted the North Carolina Democrat from relative obscurity to national acclaim as a folk hero. This was at an age when most public men had dropped from view.

Ervin’s cherubic features, his mobile eyebrows that bobbed constantly up and down like corks in a rapids, his vast repertoire of folk humor and his ability to summon righteous indignation over the scandals of Watergate had a magnetic appeal to television viewers.

It was because of Ervin’s reputation for integrity and stubborn independence that he was chosen to head the Senate Select Committee to investigate the Watergate scandals.

Ervin, in fact, was probably the only Democrat in the Senate who could meet the rigid standards set by then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) for the committee chairmanship.

Mansfield’s first standard was that the chairman could not be a past or potential presidential candidate, which ruled out most Senate Democrats. Mansfield also wanted an experienced lawyer, preferably one with judicial experience.

Furthermore, Ervin had never been a partisan Democrat. He had supported President Richard M. Nixon on the Vietnam War and had voted to sustain some Nixon vetoes. In short, as Mansfield put it, Ervin “was the only man on either side of the aisle who would have the respect of the Senate as a whole.”


Wanted the Truth

The hearings were supposedly to recommend legislation that would prevent a recurrence of the scandals that ultimately toppled Nixon. Ervin said it was “more important that the American people get the truth than a few people go to jail.”

He opened the televised hearings on May 17, 1973, by stating that the committee’s purpose was to “probe into assertions that the very system has been subverted.” He charged that if those accusations were true, Watergate was a conspiracy to “steal from Americans their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election.”

But Ervin did not maintain that philosophical attitude for long.

Over objections that he was pressing witnesses too hard, Ervin replied: “I’m just an old country lawyer, and I don’t know the finer ways to do it. I just have to do it my way.”

The committee heard presidential adviser John Dean say that Nixon knew of the attempted Watergate cover-up and had discussed payments of hush money. Alexander Butterfield first revealed the existence of the Oval Office taping system in testimony before the committee.

Quotes Shakespeare

As the hearings wound on, Ervin quoted Shakespeare, telling one witness who claimed he had perjured himself out of loyalty to Nixon:

“Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.”

That he attributed the quotation to the wrong play, “Henry IV,” instead of the play “Henry VIII” mattered little to delighted television audiences.

But perhaps the quotation that best summed up Ervin’s and the nation’s attitude toward Watergate was Ervin’s own:

“If men and women of capacity refuse to take part in politics and government, they condemn themselves, as well as the people, to the punishment of living under bad government.”

But the American people saw only one dimension of Ervin in that hot summer of 1973--perhaps not surprisingly because he was a bundle of paradoxes during his 20-year career in the U.S. Senate.

By both instinct and birthright, Ervin was a bona fide Southern conservative and an uncompromising anti-communist. Yet in 1954, the very year he entered the Senate by gubernatorial appointment to fill a vacancy (and where he was sworn in by then-Vice President Nixon), Ervin played a leading role in the censure of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) for abuse of Senate power in his anti-communist campaign.

Ervin, who never missed a chance to illustrate a point with a story, told the Senate that McCarthy’s witch hunts reminded him of “Uncle Ephraim Swink,” an arthritic mountaineer who was asked at a revival meeting what the Lord had done for him.

Struggling to his feet, Uncle Ephraim said:

“Brother, he has mighty nigh ruint me.” And that, Ervin said, was what McCarthy had done to the Senate.

Ervin’s tales were not always particularly funny. But he told them with such zest, his eyes sparkling, that his fellow senators and listeners elsewhere could not refrain from laughing.

“I have always found if you got a good story that sort of fits things, a good story is worth an hour of argument,” Ervin once said.

The stormy McCarthy era evoked the first of many seeming contradictions in the chemistry of Sam Ervin, who came to be known around the country as “Senator Sam.”

Constitutional Scholar

Ervin, a North Carolina state Supreme Court justice and constitutional scholar before he entered the Senate, was always in the forefront of Southern opposition to any civil rights bill.

Yet he was easily the Senate’s most outspoken champion of civil liberties. He investigated and scathingly attacked the massive government surveillance programs carried out during the Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon administrations that included computer files on persons engaged in political dissent or civil disorders.

To Ervin, these practices carried the seeds of a potential police state. “I believe,” he once said of the surveillance programs, “that in these systems, where they contain the record of the individual’s thoughts, beliefs, habits, attitudes and personal activities, there may well rest a potential for political control and for intimidation which is alien to a society of free men.”

Ervin saw no contradiction between his opposition to civil rights for blacks and his championing of civil liberties. To him, in both instances, he was fighting encroachments of government on the daily lives of American citizens.

But by comparison to some of his Southern colleagues of the time, Ervin was not a racist. During the Senate’s historic 57-day filibuster over the 1964 civil rights bill, Ervin was in the forefront of the fray, shouting and flailing his arms while frequently citing a passage from a law book amid the mountain of legal tomes he kept on his desk. But Ervin tried to keep the debate confined to constitutional issues and cautioned against those who resorted to racial emotionalism.

Civil Rights Position

He explained his civil rights position this way:

“My stand is unequivocal. No man should be denied the right to vote on account of race; no man should be denied the right to seek and hold any job, the right to live by the sweat of his own brow; no man should be denied the right to have a fair and impartial trial by a jury of his peers; no man should be denied the right to a decent education or to enjoy any other basic human right. . . .

“But we will not fool history as we fool ourselves when we steal freedom from one man to confer it on another. When freedom for one citizen is diminished, it is in the end diminished for all. Nor can we preserve liberty by making one branch of government its protector, for, though defense of liberty be the purpose, the perversion of it will be the effect.”

Nor was this the end of the Ervin paradoxes.

He was a fiscal conservative and advocated a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. But he strenuously opposed the effort in 1973 by Nixon to impound money appropriated by the Democratic Congress as a means of curbing federal spending.

Power of the Purse

Although he favored federal frugality as much as Nixon did, Ervin regarded impoundment as a gross violation of the power of the purse vested in Congress by the Constitution and believed that the President had no authority to refuse to spend as Congress directed.

Then there was the matter of school prayer.

Although a devout Presbyterian from North Carolina’s Bible Belt, Ervin almost single-handedly persuaded a politically timid Senate in 1966 to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment pushed by then-Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen (R-Ill.) to permit prayer in public schools.

Ervin told the Senate that he originally had opposed the Supreme Court’s anti-prayer ruling but that on study and meditation had concluded that the decision protected religious liberty.

Helped Defeat Proposal

“I am a professor of great affliction--a Scotch-Irish conscience, which will not permit me to follow after a great multitude to do what I conceive to be evil,” Ervin said. Several senators later credited Ervin’s speech with enabling them to help defeat Dirksen’s proposal.

Ervin’s fight against the Dirksen amendment was reminiscent of his role as a young member of the North Carolina Legislature in helping to defeat a bill that would have banned the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Ervin assailed the bill as a threat to free speech and said it “serves no good purpose except to absolve monkeys of their responsibility for the human race.”

Samuel James Ervin Jr. was born in Morganton on Sept. 27, 1896. His father was a lawyer, and Ervin credited him for his own love affair with the law.

Cited for Gallantry

Ervin was graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1917 and almost immediately went into the Army. He spent 18 months in France with the 1st Division during World War I. He was wounded twice and was twice cited for gallantry. His awards included the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross.

Ervin was admitted to the North Carolina Bar in 1919 after “reading” law in an attorney’s office, a common practice at the time. But he wanted a better education and decided to go to law school. There was, however, a problem. He was in love with a hometown girl, Margaret Bruce Bell, and he feared that if he was away too long, she might lose interest in him.

So he made a highly unusual arrangement with the Harvard Law School: He enrolled in its third year and took the courses he wanted the most. At the end of that year, Margaret was still waiting, so Ervin returned for the second year of law school, and then the first.

On graduating, he went home and married his sweetheart. They had two daughters and one son. All survive him.

Went Through Backward

After going to Washington, Ervin said a reporter once asked him if he had known the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter at Harvard. “I said, no, I didn’t get a chance to learn too many people in law school very well because they were traveling in one direction and I was traveling in another. They were going through law school forward and I was going through backward.”

He wrote three books, including an autobiography, and resurfaced briefly in a series of American Express card television commercials a few years ago.

From his first days in the Senate, when he helped obtain censure of McCarthy, Ervin was one of the Senate’s most respected members. But he did not gain much national attention until he headed the select Watergate committee.

It was the last major act of his career. The next year, in 1974, he retired from the Senate at age 77. Although he was under great pressure from his admirers to seek another six-year term, he followed the advice of his wife, who said:

“The time to quit is when people want you to stay.”