I wrote this book without the help of a ghost writer. Except for its quotations, all its words are my own. Originally I put them down on yellow tablets with a pencil. -- Sam J. Ervin Jr.

It is easy to see him sitting at a desk back in North Carolina, furiously scribbling away on a yellow pad, in a prose style more suited for engraving in stong. Sam Ervin went back home at the end of 1974 and, save for his occasional television commercials for American Express cards, has seldom been heard from since. But he was moved to action, he says in the introduction to The Whole Truth, when he read Nixon's memoirs, and concluded that he owed it to the country and to history to set down the truth, as he sees it, about the crimes, libels, political outrages and lapses of judgment that have come to be lumped under the heading of Watergate.

"Nixon's Memoirs hurl forth epithets at those whose only offense was that they sought to ascertain the truth about Watergate by constitutional and legal processes in obedience to legal duty . . . ," he says. "Nixon's Memoirs insinuate that he was driven from the presidency by a hostile press and vindictive partisans, and not by his own misdeeds." This insinuation, he goes on to say -- repeatedly, and at some length -- is "totally incompatible" with the facts.

It is perhaps timely that his book has just reached the stands, when Richard Nixon and some of his former aides are beginning to reemerge into public life. Nixon himself was back in Washington recently, testifying at the break-in trial of two former FBI officials, Edward S. Miller and W. Mark Felt. He looked pale, and his nose seemed to have grown, like Pinocchio's -- an illusion brought on by a receding hairline and sagging jowls. He had neither apologies for nor second thoughts about his endorsement of Tom Charles Huston's plan to permit illegal break-ins and wire taps in the name of "national security." Rather, he told the court, it was one of those things that are necessary in wartime. And even as he said it, one could see Ervin, seven years before, sputtering in rage as John Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon's No. aide, said pretty much the same thing, claiming that the Constitution gave Nixon the powers to order a break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist.

"No, sir!," Ervin had thundered, his finger jabbing at Ehrlichman, his jowls and voice aquiver with anger. "There's not a syllable . . . that says the president can suspend the Fourth Amendment [which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures] or authorize burglary."

Then, as now, Ervin was at his best when arguing the intent and scope of the Constitution, which he has called "the finest thing to come out of the mind of man." He has not always won the hearts of liberals in doing so; during the Civil Rights battles of the early 1960s, he was -- in the name of states' rights -- a leader in the fight by Southern conservatives to stall, delay, limit and seaken the major antidiscrimination proposals of those years. But by the late 1960s he had come to be seen as one of the Senate's staunchest, and most eloquent, advocates of individual liberties, and one of its strongest opponents of unchecked government power.

Some of this last is seen in his chapter on executive privilege, which sums up as well as anything Ervin's fundamental difference with Nixon and his aides. "To President Nixon, the presidency was an imperial institution," he writes. "He maintained that when the Constitution divided the powers of the federal government among Congress, the president, and the courts, it vested in the president an executive privilege which is absolute in nature and unreviewable by Congress or the Courts."

The fight over "executive privilege" -- over the issue of whether the Senate would be able to subpoena Nixon aides and White House documents -- was one of the first major clashes between the president and Ervin's committee, and Ervin dismissed Nixon's arguments with the mixture of scholarly scorn and country charm that was to make him a sort of folk hero during a dangerous time. What Nixon was seeking wasn't executive privilege but "executive poppycock," he said. "It's akin to the divine right of kings, which passed out of exestence in America in the Revolution."

The book, among other things, is a reminder that it was a real constitutional struggle that took place during Watergate, albeit one heavy with political undercurrents. Ervin goes to great lengths not to attack Nixon as a person or as a politician, but goes to equal lengths to argue that Nixon had grossly breached his constitutional duties to "uphold the law," and thus had to be held accountable for it. "When President Nixon was untrue to his constitutional obligation, Congress and the federal judiciary remained true to theirs," he writes. "As a consequence, the United States weathered a great national crisis without turmoil and with all its institutions intact."

This is hardly an original observation, of course. But it's worth being reminded about as the reassessment of Watergate and Nixon's role in our history begins.

Much of the flavor of Ervin's personality comes through in this book, which is as good a recounting as can be found of the numerous misdeeds that were uncovered in his committee's probe. But is little in here about the partisan splits that divided Ervin's committee, and almost nothing on the troublesome heavy-handedness of congressional inquiries. It does not pretend to be a complete account of all the Watergate probes; only three pages are devoted to the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry. Moreover, it lacks a strong sense of the drama and tension that enveloped Washington, and the country, in that period. There is little indication in the book that during the period of which Ervin is writing, the capital was a city of anger, fear, bitterness and dismay. Nor is there much attempt to place Watergate in the context of changing perceptions of the presidency and government, coming as it did at the end of a long, painful war that alienated many citizens and made them more skeptical of their leaders.

What Ervin has given us, in essence, is a rewrite of his committee's report, interspersed with personal observations and heavily annotated. The apparent purpose is neither to add new information or insight, but mainly -- perhaps solely -- to refute Nixon's attempts to explain away the whole mess. Much of it is in the manner of a trial lawyer making a summation for a jury. The obvious strength is that, like the House Judiciary Committee's "Statements of Evidence," the mere recitation of the evidence is overwhelming. The weakness is that it is so overwheming that it tends to dull and numb, rather than outrage.

There are things here that will annoy (and perhaps offend) some readers. Ervin is as gentle as can be on his own committee, praising the late Senator Joseph Montoya, a Democrat from New Mexico, for his "remarkable judicial temperament," for example, while ignoring the fact that Montoya seemed barly capable of asking an intelligent question. His prose style sometimes is a bit much, as in his reference to the late President Kennedy, "who, as the hapless victim of an assassin's bullet, had been sleeping in the silence of the dreamless dust for nine years." And he doesn't tell us nearly enough about what he was thinking during this time, when he was at the very center of a constitutional crisis, faced with a mandate that some critics charged would undermine the presidency and the nation.

Ervin says that he had only a limited purpose in writing the book, however, and he has accomplished this rather will. In 1973, Ervin was angry about what Nixon was doing to the Constitution. Now he's angry about what he thinks Nixon is trying to do to the historical record. The Whole truth isn't the best book to come out of Watergate, but it's an honest attempt at having the last word.