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Commentary: The Watergate scandal at 40

Stories, even the ones about the biggest political scandal of them all, put on a little age like all the rest of us. With Watergate, the break-in of break-ins, the coverup of coverups, the one that brought down a president, a 40th anniversary (the break-in happened on June 17, 1972) is to some degree about absent friends.

At least it is for Rufus Edmisten, the colorful former North Carolina attorney general and secretary of state, who rose to fame as deputy counsel for Sen. Sam Ervin and what came to be known only as the Watergate Committee. Ervin, like Edmisten a mountaineer, gave the young lawyer a break and brought him to Washington. When it was done, the boyish-looking Edmisten, a too-old-looking-for-you-boy pipe clenched in his teeth and his “Elvis hair” perfectly styled, launched a political career back home.

Edmisten sits in his Salisbury Street office, located in what is now called the Edmisten Building in downtown Raleigh, and glances mischievously to his left, looking at the under-glass subpoena he delivered to the White House from the committee. It’s his most prized historic artifact. He took it over to Pennsylvania Avenue personally about a year after the break-in.

It would be hard to say one thing brought Richard Nixon down, but the Ervin committee, which made a legend out of a conservative North Carolina senator with a quicker wit than anyone knew (except those who knew him) and a Harvard legal education, certainly did its part.

Ervin is long deceased, but Edmisten speaks of him with familial reverence reserved otherwise for his Mama and Daddy.

And humor. Oh, the humor.

“Now this is a great story,” he says, surrounded by papers and notes about the party he’s planning in his office for the anniversary. “Once, Sen. Ervin told me to call the president and that he and other people on the committee wanted to talk to him. So I called over there, and the secretary says to hold, and then the president comes on and says, ‘Sen. Ervin, this is Richard Nixon.’ And I said, ‘Oh, Mr. President, Sen. Ervin wants to get you.’ Oh, what was I thinking. Sen. Ervin thought it was funny.”

Edmisten, who still has a boyish look – except for the hair a little thinner than the old Elvis ’do and a face creased with smile lines – also says he would like to clear up for the first time what he says is the Edmisten Myth: that he positioned himself behind Ervin in order to get on TV a lot and thus promote himself for a possible political career.

“Look, I was popping up and down all the time to answer questions for the senator,” he says, with a hint of a smile. “So the senator himself suggested maybe I should get one of those rolling chairs and so that’s what I did.” He needed to roll up behind Ervin for instructions, see. He then offers another grin...

Watergate changed his life, gilded Sam Ervin’s legacy, got Fred Thompson (a GOP counsel for the committee) elected to the Senate from Tennessee and raised the profiles of senators such as Howard Baker and Herman Talmadge. It sent Nixon’s men to prison. Most of them, and many other figures from that era, are gone now, of course.

Edmisten maintains contact with those friends of the era who are still around, such as Raleigh attorney Gene Boyce, a key investigator for the committee, and Mike Carpenter of the N.C. Home Builders Association, also an investigator.

And still, once in a while, a fresh story will appear, not that Edmisten isn’t pretty good at telling the old ones in a way that makes them perpetually interesting. The new story this day concerned the committee’s plan to call as a witness the unpredictable Martha Mitchell, wife of grim Attorney General John Mitchell, a key Nixon confidant.

“Martha Mitchell was quite a character, and you never did know what she was going to say, “ Edmisten remembered. “But the day before, Sen. Ervin called me in, and he had his head in his hand, and he said, ‘Rufus, we’re not gonna call Martha Mitchell. All that would be, would be entertainment, and Southern gentlemen don’t treat ladies that way.’ Wellsir, I thought about that and really he was right, and so that was a good lesson in manners to me.”

But mischief was not absent from the proceedings. Edmisten displays a picture of Ervin holding a fake bologna provided by the staff. “He held it up to one witness, no kidding,” Edmisten said. “And he said, ‘That’s bologna!’”

With that, 71-year-old Rufus Edmisten cackles with that boisterous mountain laugh, and looks, for a moment, like that 31-year-old counsel with the Elvis sideburns, behind Sam Ervin. On rollers.