Sam J. Ervin Jr. has been a liberal hero, then a liberal pariah, then a liberal hero, and of course he noticed the spendid variety of folk who have alternately embraced and shunned him.
"All through Watergate," he says now, "I got enough letters asking what sort of wretch I was, that I never got a swelled head," despite having become the great good Anecdotal Conscience of the Senate, and a virtual saint for many young people who saw in him the force of a clear mind and a clean heart, a slightly over-aged David against a none-too-appealing Goliath.
But now the commotion is over, and Sam Ervin is back in Morganton, a county town in the beautiful South Mountains, and at 86 (as at 10, 25 and 50) everybody knows him.
Since Morganton is so huge, the streets are one-way whenever you want to go the other way, but as a lady in the hardware store said:
"I wish you'd stop paying attention to streets and just follow my directions and you'll get there. Now you know where the old courthouse was? Well you can see the new courthouse from there and Ervin's office is just past that. You go to the top of this hill and . . . "
His office is ample and nondazzling in an odd, white building that suggests Le Corbusier getting even with somebody, and the inner portal is still guarded by Mary McBride (as it was in Washington; for Miss McBride arrived to run Ervin's office shortly after the dove dried off from the Ark). She sees through all visitors, as it were, and if she decides you haven't got a devious bone in your body she lets you in, where the senator sits at his old desk in a sober suit, white shirt and dark blue tie, his eyebrows not twitching up and down as much as they used to in Washington, but his hair equally silver-silky, his cheeks equally rosy and his smile equally liable to mischief.
Ervin's manners were formed in a better day than ours but in due time he gets around to the question of why Richard Nixon did not destroy the damning tapes that showed, among other things, he flat lied when he said he didn't know this and that about the Watergate mess.
"I don't think the truth was all that important to President Nixon," Ervin begins in an even tone, as he might use in saying the president was never all that fond of brussels sprouts, "and I think he kept the tapes simply because he never dreamed anybody would ever hear them. He relied on executive privilege to keep the tapes fully under his control. Executive privilege was never designed to shield criminal behavior, however."
Ervin never planned to write a book, he said, but he got sufficiently angry at the evasions in the Nixon memoirs that he sat down and wrote his own version of the Watergate case, modestly entitled "The Whole Truth."
The former Democratic senator from North Carolina has a long background of Scotch Presbyterians and Huguenots and plain-living amid eternal verities which, as everyone knows, are what plain-living, high-minded Presbyterians say they are. The senator acknowledges as much:
"It's like the old Scotch Presbyterian used to pray," he said, " 'Lord, grant me to be right, for as thou well knowest, right or wrong, I never change my mind.' "
The senator, however, did change his mind on a crucially important matter to him, the landmark Brown case that forbad school segregation.
"I was shocked and outraged when the Supreme Court handed down that decision. After all, if one thing seemed to be settled in our law, it was the doctrine of equal but separate schools. The whole thing started about 1840 in a Boston case -- it wasn't Southerners -- an action to admit blacks to a Massachusetts school. The Massachusetts courts said no. This was repeatedly affirmed, not only in Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 (the controlling court opinion before 1954) and there was never thought to be any conflict between this interpretation and the equal protection guarantees of the Constitution."
The Brown decision seemed to him therefore grossly callous to settled law, but of this, more later.
"As you know, I opposed and voted against every piece of civil rights legislation for blacks in modern times, and I've often been charged with a great inconsistency in defending civil rights for all while opposing 'civil rights' for blacks.
"It surprised me a little, that as far as I can tell, it never cost me any votes, not even in black centers in North Carolina, and I attribute that to their belief that I was honestly defending the Constitution.
"Well. When Nixon and Mitchell started in on their 'no-knock' business, I fought hard against it, and it was clear that blacks would be the major victims of it. They weren't going to use it against high-society people. I didn't fight then merely because my fight would benefit blacks almost entirely, but because it was an infringement of freedom under the Constitution. Blacks used to holler encouragement to me then when I passed on the street."
Ervin arrived in Washington in 1954 when Sen. Joseph McCarthy had the capital ga-ga about communists who he said were everywhere, to the imminent threat to the republic. Miss Margaret, as the senator's wife has always been known, and who is now in poor but stable health in their pleasant house in Morganton, pleaded back then that if Sam accepted the appointment (to fill out the term of a senator who had died) that he would never tangle with McCarthy, who seemed almost omnipotent in his reckless accusations.
And Ervin himself, at that time, had supposed McCarthy was serving a useful purpose uncovering communist subversion, but quickly changed his mind. McCarthy's abandoned assaults on everybody who seemed to oppose him for whatever reason, soon went too far, and the president of the Senate, Richard Nixon, appointed Ervin to a Senate committee to study the question of whether McCarthy should be censured.
McCarthy lost no time calling Ervin and some others "unwitting handmaidens" of the communists, and Ervin, who did not regard himself as a handmaiden of any ilk, thought enough was enough.
With surprising generosity the other senators on the committee left it largely to Ervin to take on McCarthy, which he did in a notable Senate performance five months after he arrived in the capital. The speech included an early example of Sam Ervin's cornpone (or nitric) wit. He said McCarthy reminded him of the preacher who did not like the top-knots women were wearing, and decided to thunder against these hairdos as contrary to the will of God, though he had a little trouble finding an appropriate text. Finally he delivered a powerful sermon called "Top-Knot Come Down."
Somebody asked where in the Bible it says that top-knots should come down, and the preacher cited Matthew 24:17 which reads:
"Let him who is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house."
The senators went mad with laughter, and the awe with which McCarthy had been held by vote-conscious senators was at an end.
The senator's fondness for poetry is well known. It is not so well known that as a schoolboy he talked more than everybody else in the class put together and was frequently kept after school, where he memorized verse aplenty. At any pause, provided the occasion is somewhat grim, he recites the gung-ho upper-lip portion of Tennyson's "Ulysses," and on virtually any occasion he breaks out Walter Malone, once a judge in Memphis. In that city all properly regulated households had a framed copy of "Opportunity" hung beside the upstairs telephone. How this poet's works got to North Carolina is not known, but Ervin seems to know all of them, and his favorite phrase, "fellow travelers to the tomb," is from Malone. Where others might say, of some bum or other, that there but for the grace of God go I, the senator sounds off about fellow-travelers to the tomb. He is, of course, Scot, with that race's aptitude for gloom.
Nobody will make sense of Ervin who does not believe, as the senator does, that the Constitution is a seriously controlling legal force in American life. Many nowadays believe it is sufficiently archaic that (like many old Common Law concepts) it has little place in the tangled society of today in which almost every force -- labor unions, corporations, petro-dollars, blacks, women, gays, etc., etc. -- seems to have burst forth since the Constitution was adopted.
"I believe," Ervin says, "the only equality that government can give is equality under the laws, under the Constitution. It was my study of the equal-protection concept that led me to my final conclusion about the school desegregation case; that, no matter how settled the separate-but-equal doctrine was in our law, the equal-protection aspect of the Constitution did not allow it."
This was a difficult reversal of position for Ervin, and he came to desegregation of schools not as many did (who argued psychological damage to black children and other sociological arguments) but by analysis of the Constitution itself.
For years, cynics wryly noted that if Ervin had supported, instead of opposed, civil rights legislation for blacks, he could never have won election to the Senate from North Carolina. His friends say that if Ervin had not believed the Constitution forbad these civil rights laws, he could not have opposed them.
He was a successful small-town lawyer and later he was a learned justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. He was by no means hungry to come to Washington in the first place, and his life could have been perfectly full without the Senate. Nobody who knows the man, or who has looked at his career in any detail, ever believed his anticivil-rights stance was motivated by a desire for votes from racists or bigots.
He did think, and thinks now in his retirement, that it is shocking, outrageous and above all un-Constitutional for certain states to be singled out for vote-registration procedures that do not apply uniformly to all states, and his anger, while controlled and expressed with civility, is monumental in the face of racial quotas or any other policy in which the law is color-conscious.
But we are laying up endless trouble, he thinks, whenever we abridge a Constitutional liberty for some in order to confer a benefit on others. Shortcuts through, or devious detours around, the Constitution for some presumed good purpose, will yet prove to be terrible mistakes, he thinks.
Virtually all civil rights legislation for blacks, he believes, no matter how good the result intended, is fatally flawed by its special-interest benefits conferred at the cost of some abridgement of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. It cannot and it will not come to good, as Shakespeare says.
Liberals deplored, year after year, Ervin's dismal record of opposing civil-rights legislation, though when it came to arguing his central points, the main liberal argument has been, "Well, even so, these laws must be passed," which is not much of an argument in the long run. If laws can be color-conscious for blacks, Ervin sees no reason they may not be color-conscious against blacks, or Asians or Indians, or, for that matter, select groups of whites.
His good humor is unexpected in one who feels so passionately, and so is his courtesy to opponents. (He thinks of all the dim-witted lunkheads who do not agree with him as fellow-travelers to the tomb.)
Paul R. Clancy, sometime correspondent for The Charlotte Observer, once informed the world of a revealing thing in his Ervin biography, "Just a Country Lawyer:"
During the Senate Select Committee hearings into presidential campaign practices (the Watergate Committee or the Ervin Committee as it was also known) Ervin was seen making notes from time to time. Many who followed the hearings on television wondered what he was jotting down. It remained for Clancy to discover that some of these solemn notations were merely the senator's Christmas cheese list. No point waiting till the last minute. Besides, idle hands are the devil's workshop. So along with the hearings, you might as well decide who should get a Gouda this year.
Ervin is the sort of man, once common among us, who thinks private distress is best kept private and not inflicted on all and sundry. His health is not what it was a half-century ago, but some who know him marvel it is as good as it is since "he never took care of himself."
"Well, I have a little arthritis in this foot," he says, "and emphysema and lymphatic cancer, but they don't bother me much. Cancer is not good news, but if you're going to get it, lymphatic is the kind to get."
It will be found rather a mistake to ask Ervin to summarize Watergate in a paragraph, since the first stopping place in his answer lies about an hour forward. If one is bold enough to put it in a nutshell for him, it's that Watergate concerned an official who broke laws and lied to the Congress, and who did not win.
The liberals, who once all but canonized him for his role in the collapse of McCarthy, and who had since all but anathematized him for his opposition to civil rights legislation, once more made him a hero for his role in bringing down President Nixon.
To Ervin, however, his own actions in these various times were all of a piece, and all depended on a proper respect for the Constitution, and for truth.
"I guess the worst single thing a man can do is lie," he once observed. In the context in which he said it, one gathered a great deal might be forgiven a fellow who in passion strays or in weakness falters, but a deliberate cool lie is something else again.
Admittedly, however, some of his "eternal verities" are arguable. Ervin believes that a nation or a man should live within his income, except perhaps for brief periods of serious emergency. This is one of God's laws, and woe to him who breaks it. However arguable it may be that God's law covers budgets, at least nobody ever accused the senator of flinging away thousands on dancing girls, race horses, baccarat or even his loved books. If he couldn't afford it, he did without it. You learn that much, God knows, growing up in any austere God-fearing house, and in the South especially you soon start believing that while some things are all right, though costly (such as a spiced round of beef at Christmas) other things (such as lotteries, immoderate losses at poker, tickets to any Republican benefit) are forbidden, possibly in the Book of Obadiah or some other place one cannot at the moment cite precisely, but which are there in letters of fire, all the same.
There is a type of moral firmness, or rigidity as some say, detectable in certain Americans, especially Southerners perhaps, and especially in old age; it is not so apparent in those under 80. Suspicious signs were evident in Ervin earlier. It seems to go all through, and is not even all that apparent on the surface, and it seems to be the result of a great deal of self-wrangling, or trying to win internal arguments without success. Ervin is an example of this.
It may be argued and it may be true that his chief significance in public life has depended on the temper of the times and on a general feeling that something important is lacking in national policy.
It is not simply the advent of nuclear science, which demonstrated (as science consistently does, with every advance through the centuries) that the real world is not at all what it first seems. Beyond that, people generally may have sensed a slippage from the moorings, by which a demagogue like McCarthy could impose a type of terror largely because senators, among others, did not light into him. Everyone knew he was wrong, but few risked doing anything about it.
And as in the case of McCarthy, conscience and courage seemed to be lacking in too many areas of the modern state. Entirely too much magical power was attributed to the cool efficiency of file cards, buzzing machines, and overwhelming organizations. You can't fight city hall, and a premium seemed to be set increasingly on a cynical or unthinking acceptance of whatever the hell came along, whether McCarthy or Vietnam or anything else. Thus when it became clear the American president had lied to the nation, people said well so did Eisenhower and everybody else.
And who was complaining, when American prosperity was at a high beyond most dreams. Surely the technology and organization and management was what counted, and while quaint figures like a senator with a conscience were all right, and even admired, they could hardly make much difference.
As the physicist-philosopher Friedrich Dessauer observed (Bollingen Series XXX vol. 1):
"Too much success brings hubris, pride. Accumulated triumphs bring narrowness and shortsightedness. If force and matter govern with so much certainty, can we not assume everything is force and matter? Power seduces. Unceasingly it whispers, 'Use me!' Unceasingly it lures man to evade hard work, to acquire earthly goods and bask in pleasures, and in all this power offers its services. Thus it corrodes man's inner force; demoralizes his ethos, extinguishes his conscience, kills pity, and drives the possessor of power into the fatal abyss."
Dessauer was not speaking of those with political power, but of mankind in general, possessed of technological power and increasingly separated from anything that did not "work."
"For lack of other criteria, he will be inclined to accept pomp and glitter, success and victory . . . And thus we see the great hosts of technicians complaisantly bowing before the wielders of power, lending these men their impressive abilities throughout the world."
This feeling that things are beyond human control is hardly new, but the American perception that something was wrong was widespread at the very time of Watergate. When Ervin, as chairman of the Senate committee, appeared on the nation's screens, he was for many an almost forgotten vision of some stern father dealing in right and wrong, truth and lies, and categories rarely considered in the general rush for the more affluent life.
To see power crumble and then collapse under the simple assault of laws so simple any child might know them, was a revelation to millions and they not unnaturally cheered.
Ervin, for his part, got on with his Christmas cheese list, since it hardly needed the full attention of a learned or intelligent man to see through the sham defenses of Watergate.
Possibly he enjoyed being a hero again, though as he said, both experience and justice have taught him not to crow in victory, or to crow very softly.
Among the serious faults that Ervin has been charged with is the fact that although he knows Shakespeare, he commonly quotes Tennyson and Malone, but this flaw, his friends have always argued, should be forgiven on the theory that nobody's perfect.
And he never said he was anything but a lawyer.
His stories, like Socrates', have often been protested as too diverting from the solemn case they illustrate. This is maybe his most typical story, often trotted out when Ervin could not see for the life of him where the Constitution authorized this or that. It is rendered, unfortunately, without the precise Ervin wording, accompanying eyebrow-action, etc.:
A fellow was fired as preacher and demanded to know why.
"Don't I arguefy?" he asked.
"Yes, you arguefy all right."
"Well, don't I sputify?" (A competent preacher must argue and dispute convincingly, of course).
"Yes, you sure do sputify," he was assured.
"Then what's wrong with my preaching?"
"You fail," he was told, "to show wherein."
Sam Ervin was hardly unique in the Senate for arguefying and sputifying. Where he shone was showing wherein. You gave him a good wherein to wrangle with, and he was like a tough old hound with a soup bone. No way in this world he was ever about to let it go.