It wasn't so much that Sam Ervin was bear- hugged by his latter-day admirers as that he was "huggy-beared" -- transformed into a kind of cutesy grandfather figure. This was an act of condescension which, although it put him beyond reproach, also put him beyond any possibility of being taken seriously or dealt with realistically from the early 1970s on. The Democratic senator from North Carolina, who died on Tuesday at the age of 88, was, in effect, robbed of his dignity by this process. He was, in his long public lifetime as a judge and a senator, both far better and far worse than anything the silly stereotype that has come to dominate discussion about him suggests.

In this way Mr. Ervin was himself a minor victim of Watergate, that sprawling collection of interrelated corruption and impropriety that he had the guts and independence to take on -- and stick with -- when few others did and when the pressures not to were intense. He didn't like what his committee uncovered, didn't trust what it was being told and wouldn't butt out as he was so frequently and disagreeably urged to. So Sam Ervin made a difference, perhaps the decisive one, in legitimizing the effort to get to the bottom of Watergate and to hold public people accountable for their acts. It seems to us small thanks for this that the senator was somehow in the course of it recreated as a loveable old caricature by so many of those who favored what he -- the real man -- was doing.

Why did this occur? We can only surmise the impulse was, first, to immunize Mr. Ervin against political assault from the Nixon White House (how could you say anything mean about so endearing a cracker- barrel figure?) and, second, to drive from memory the recollection of Mr. Ervin's considerable contribution to impeding the passage of sorely needed civil rights legislation over the years. The second of these speculations deserves some thought. It was often said, during the exhausting and frustrating struggle down through the years to get civil rights legislation past its would-be suffocators in the Senate, that some of the Southerners involved -- Sam Ervin, William Fulbright, Lister Hill, et al. -- were in it for better, more elevated, more respectable or, at least, more forgivable reasons than the others. But their contribution to the country's protracted racial shame was no less consequential for that.

This is a fact of Mr. Ervin's biography, and it is just there. We do not think you can write honestly about him without bringing it up and acknowledging its importance. We also think it does not diminish the magnitude or solidity of the man's other achievements, in particular his achievement in calling a rogue government to account. Sam Ervin, no teddy bear, was a tough, formidable, intelligent adversary -- Richard Nixon found out what others who espoused better causes than he had long since known. Mr. Ervin was also a man of personal charm and grace. He had much humor. He had his gigantic blind spots and faults. We are saying merely that he was -- contrary to what you may have heard -- human and real, and that he did a lot of good in this world.