RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – June 17th marked the 50th Anniversary of the Watergate break-in. The cover-up that followed, the hearings and the White House tapes ultimately led to President Nixon stepping down from office.
At the time, Sam Ervin was already no stranger to the American public.
Nearly two decades after bringing down Joseph McCarthy, North Carolina’s senator became the chair of the Senate Watergate Committee. A distinction that became a legacy.
His steadfast, fair, judicious, logical and common-sense approach steered the committee’s reputation as bi-partisan and just. His experience as a lawyer and a judge, as well as his lack of further ambition, helped place Ervin in that role.
Ervin’s grandsons also followed his legal footpath.
Sam Ervin IV is a North Carolina State Supreme Court associate justice and Robert Ervin is a superior court judge.
“And I think he was perceived as being relatively conservative among the senate democrats and perceived as being perhaps less partisan than average,” Robert Ervin said.
Sam Ervin IV added “as he put it himself, he might have been the only member of the Democratic caucus at the time who could not have been accused of harboring ambitions to run for president. So he was not viewed as someone who would try to use the chairmanship of the committee as a launching pad for further office.”
They also reflected on the 50th Anniversary of the Watergate break-in.
“It was not unusual for him to be in the public eye, but there was clearly a ratcheting up of the focus that we were not previously accustomed to…reporters showing up at the house and that kind of thing,” Robert Ervin said.
Sam Ervin IV recalled a specific reference to that notion.
“Sam Donaldson showed up at our back porch, or our back door, because when we were eating dinner. Granddad wasn’t answering the door to his house, so the national press descended on Morganton… it was kind of hard to miss.”
Both remember getting the chance to sit and watch the Watergate hearings in person.
“(We) sort of saw the surrounding media activity as well and it was a relatively slow week in the hearings so they were somewhat interested in our reaction at the time,” Rober Ervin said.
Meanwhile, Senator Ervin’s desk and office have remained on display at Western Piedmont Community College.
Although Harvard educated, his grandsons say the fact he called himself a ‘country lawyer’ couldn’t be more appropriate.
Sam Ervin IV said he knew the farmers and he knew the storekeepers. Even after his grandfather retired from the senate he would walk around uptown and run into people that he knew who were wearing bib overalls and going into the farm store.
“He was embedded in a rural small town community where everybody knew everybody else and the type of humor you’re talking about grew all his life,” Sam Ervin IV said. “That part of the country lawyer persona was true. That he was a lawyer in a small essentially rural town who represented in a large part average citizens and understood kind of the lives of not only the professional class like he belonged to but also the people from the rural parts of the county that has much more hard lives.”
Robert Ervin also said “he enjoyed having a good time, he liked to laugh, he didn’t take himself too seriously. He took what he was doing seriously but he never got so wound up in himself that it let him distort his views of what was going on.”