Former senator Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.), a self-described "old country lawyer" who became a national figure and a hero to many during the investigation of the Watergate scandals, died yesterday of respiratory failure. He was 88.
Ervin died at about 4:15 p.m. at North Carolina Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he had been undergoing artificial kidney dialysis. He had been hospitalized March 30 in his home town of Morganton, N.C., for treatment of emphysema and an infected gall bladder, and developed kidney failure after undergoing gall bladder surgery there.
"The cause of death was attributed by his doctors to respiratory failure which developed during the day," a hospital spokesman said. "The kidney failure for which Mr. Ervin was admitted to the center was a significant contributing factor."
Ervin served 20 years in the U.S. Senate, beginning in 1954 at the height of the McCarthy era and ending with his retirement in December 1974, four months after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. As chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices -- known more popularly as the "Ervin Committee" or the "Watergate Committee" -- which was established to investigate Watergate, Ervin was a major figure in Nixon's downfall.
With his arching eyebrows and flapping jowls that signalled his moral indignation at much of the testimony before his committee, his half-country, half-courtly demeanor and his predilection for making points by quoting the Bible and Shakespeare and telling folksy stories, Ervin quickly became a hero to many.
Ervin became so popular that "Senator Sam" T-shirts and buttons appeared all over the country, but he was far from being a pop cult figure. At a time when Americans were buffeted by the Vietnam War and Watergate and increasingly distrustful of their leaders, Ervin came across as a stern father figure who wasn't confused about what was right and wrong, moral and evil, and who took for granted the moral courage to stand up for what was right.
Ironically, it was because he was a strict constitutionalist whose interpretation of a document he revered defied ideology or party lines -- the sort of person Nixon professed to admire -- that Ervin was the choice of then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) to head the special committee.
"Sam is the only man we could have selected on either side who would have the respect of the Senate as a whole," Mansfield said.
Ervin came to an uncomplicated verdict on Watergate: Nixon and his chief aides tried to pull some funny business in order to weaken the Democratic presidential ticket and enhance Nixon's chances for reelection in 1972; tried to lie about it and cover it up in violation of the law, and got caught. His remarks at the opening of his committee hearings underscored the profound seriousness with which he viewed the Watergate case.
"If the many allegations made to this date are true, then the burglars who broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate were in effect breaking into the home of every citizen of the United States," Ervin said. "And if these allegations prove to be true, what they were seeking to steal was not the jewels, money or other precious property of American citizens, but something much more valuable -- their most precious heritage: the right to vote in a free election."
He said that Watergate "for the first time undertook to destroy the integrity of the process" and said its perpetrators showed "the same mentality as the Gestapo."
Not surprisingly, he rang down harsh judgments on the perpetrators. Quoting Mark Twain's injunction, "The truth is very precious; use it sparingly," Ervin said of Nixon: "He used it sparingly."
On the convictions of former attorney general John Mitchell and former White House aide John Ehrlichman for their roles in the scandal, he said: "I don't think either one of them would have recognized the Bill of Rights if they met it on the street in broad daylight under a cloudless sky."
When Nixon initially refused to let his aides testify before the committee, Ervin snapped: "Divine Right went out with the American Revolution and doesn't belong to White House aides. What meat do they eat that makes them grow so great? . . . . I don't think we have any such thing as royalty or nobility that exempts them . . . . That is not executive privilege. That is executive poppycock."
He used country humor to help bring down Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), who terrorized a large proportion of the political community, including the Senate, in the early 1950s. Shortly after he arrived at the Capitol in 1954, then vice president Nixon appointed Ervin to a committee to study whether McCarthy should be censured, an assignment few were eager to take.
The fledgling senator helped strip away the awe in which many of his colleagues held McCarthy with a notable speech in which he said that McCarthy reminded him of the preacher who didn't like the top knots women were wearing and wanted to denounce them as being counter to the will of God, although he had trouble finding an appropriate biblical text to support his argument.
Finally, the preacher delivered a sermon entitled "Top Knot Come Down," and someone asked him his source.
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." Much of Ervin's colleagues' apprehension dissolved in laughter and Ervin followed up in a speech advocating that McCarthy be censured.
Ervin came by his views and expressions directly. Born in Morganton on Sept. 27, 1896, a descendant of Scots-Irish Calvinists, he began memorizing the King James version of the Bible under the tutelage of his pious mother.
His father, a fiery, flamboyant, self-taught lawyer, made Ervin the most formidable name in Burke County, N.C., and gave his son his reverence for the Constitution.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1917, Ervin joined the Army and was sent to France during World War I. After resigning his commission because of his dissatisfaction with his performance in combat, he won the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts for heroism as an enlisted man.
He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1922, then practiced law in Morganton; served three terms in the state Assembly where he helped defeat a bill prohibiting the teaching of the theory of evolution, and served on the state Supreme Court from 1948 to 1954.
As a strict constitutional constructionist, he was the delight of liberals for supporting civil liberties, opposing "no knock" search laws, data banks and lie-detector tests as invasions of privacy. In 1966, he helped defeat a constitutional amendment that would have allowed prayer in school and appeared headed for enactment.
But Ervin opposed almost all civil rights legislation on the grounds that they took rights away from others, whites -- to hire whom they wanted, to sell their homes to whom they wanted, to go to school where they wanted -- and that preserving the Constitution was more important than redressing blacks' grievances. He turned around on the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, however, because of his belief that it didn't discriminate against whites.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret Bruce Bell, whom he married in 1924; two daughters, Leslie Hansler of Pennington, N.J., and Laura Smith of Morganton; a son, Sam J. Ervin III, who is a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and seven grandchildren.