Word comes that Sam Ervin is in the hospital down in North Carolina -- a brief paragraph calling to mind a computer-like blip of the Watergate hearings, of which he was chairman; of white hair, black leaping eyerows, southern drawl: a quick caricature, which is all anybody ever gets known to the public by in this world. And so, if it had been death that come for him rather than some trifling illness that I'll lay you 10-to-1 he'll overcome, and if his biographer, being interviewed on that occasion, had said that he was a great man, we would have thought, "Ho hum." All any talk of greatness is to us is words, because we nervous citizens of the late 20th century are a suspicious people. What monuments we've built are all to institutions, not individuals. We don't believe in greatness. And we call that "realistic."

The first time I walked into Sam Ervin's office was in the middle of the Watergate hearings, and I had come to look at scrapbooks and old files. This was easy to do, because nothing in that office was ever locked -- a circumstance that took some getting used to. And Sam, who didn't know me, remarked that it looked like I needed a place to work, and with that, led me into his own office, established me at his desk and said that he wouldn't need it for several hours, because he would be occupied on the Senate floor.

So I went to work with those clippings and files in a kind of half-moon space that had been cleared on the desk top. Surrounding this on all sides, within easy reach, were some important-looking papers that I later learned had been secret communications from the White House, abstracts of important forthcoming testimony and secret memos on vital investigative leads. But Sam hadn't bothered to squirrel anything away, nor cautioned me not to look at anything, but had just gone on about his business.

This was an intensely moving experience. For all he knew, I could have been working for Nixon, trying to dig up dirt. Or, by reading and spilling what was in those documents, might have jolted the hearings in ways unfavorable to him. But he had trusted me, and I was later to learn that his openness was characteristic of him. All this made an especially pognaant contrast when set against the federal suspiciousness of the Nixon White House, which prided itself on its "realism," which was the motto stenciled on the banner of the ship that went down.

Later, over a glass of beer in his living room down in Morganton, N.C., Sam said to me in an offhand way that you had to trust people, that life was not worth living if you could not do that. And while some might attribute this attitude to naivete, I knew better and regarded it instead of loftiness of spirit. This was one of several outstanding qualities he had, then as now. He was generous to his friends and loving to his family. He had the best sense of humor of any man I ever knew, and was the most intelligent, and lived each day far more fully than most people do. Moreover, he seemed to me to be exceedingly wise, in knowing what had value and what did not. In my opinion, then, he was a great man. This had nothing special to do with Watergate. This had to do with his whole life.

The trouble is that I did not say that in the biography I wrote of him. For although I undertook the book in the first place to learn from him, I had at last not learned enough. It was not enough just to trust others; one needed also to be free from others' distrust. But I became ensnared in, and subordinated to, the intense, destructive suspiciousness that is the chief spiritual characteristic of our town -- which Sam himself had managed to live above. I couldn't just flat out write that he was a great man, I told myself: people would suspect me of being a chump, or of subscribing to all Sam's political opinions, or of being some bootlicking spaniel of a Capitol Hill aide.

What I did, instead of saying that he was a great man, was to try and show him being that. This I characterized to myself as merely a literary choice. But in fact it was an inward yielding to the paranoid small-mindedness that I so loathed when I saw it exemplified in the Nixon administration. In practical terms, all it meant was leaving out the concluding page of the biography in which I said just about what I've just gotten done telling you. This would save me from looking bad -- and who would be the wiser?

Predictably, no one was, the tome got good reviews, and even the bad one said that it was "objective" and "balanced." But now I wonder how balanced it was -- or are we? Are we really so foolish as to think that great men do not exist, or that some of these do not find their ways into public life? Possibly so: the epidemic suspiciousness, which we not only practice, but give in to, makes it easy for that.

We read tales of the 19th century, which Sam was born into, and in some sense represents, and congratulate ourselves for coming so far from a time when people believed in greatness, and when they allowed themselves to feel things deeply. We read, for instance, of Lincoln breaking into tears in public, or laughing so hugely that he fell off the sofa, rolled on the floor kicking his heels and laughing, and finally had to be restrained -- a power of mirth that reminds me somewhat of Sam's. And we say to ourselves that those people back then sure were sentimental. But if they knew us, mightn't they say that we are coldblooded?

And so, if the 19th century was one in which no man was a hero to his valet, the 20th has become one in which no man is a hero to his biographer -- except perhaps for Sam Ervin, who, in spite of some epic strife between us, is a hero to his and to many friends who have known him well, and wish him well, and are strengthened and cheered fro having him around.