I’m a native North Carolinian, and I’ve been around long enough to remember Sam Ervin Jr. His quivering eyebrows and acute folk wisdom charmed the nation when he chaired the Senate’s Watergate Committee. Senator Sam, from Morganton, described himself as just “an ol’ country lawyer” without mentioning his Harvard law degree. He had no patience for lies, excuses and especially towering claims of power reserved to people in high places.
Sam Ervin would have a lot to say today.
One can only imagine, with relish, how he’d react to the obnoxiously assertive Stephen Miller, a presidential aide, when Miller said the other day of President Trump’s refugee ban, “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
The young man would have received a history lesson. Ervin said this from his Watergate Committee chair: “The Founding Fathers . . . knew that those who are trusted with power are susceptible to the disease of tyrants, which George Washington rightly described as ‘love of power and the proneness to abuse it.’ For that reason, they realized that the power of public officers should be defined by laws which they, as well as the people, are obligated to obey.”
And imagine Ervin taking on the White House line to forget about Russia’s efforts to swing last year’s election and “just move on.” He would have stripped the matter to its essence. He said of the Watergate burglars that they were “in effect, breaking into the home of every citizen in the United States,” not to steal money or jewelry “but something much more valuable – their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election.”
His star turn during Watergate came after a history of speaking truth to power. In the 1950s, he took on witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy when McCarthy was claiming communists had infiltrated all levels of the U.S. government, including the army. McCarthy was popular. But his bizarre and destructive behavior forced the Senate to study whether to discipline him for his wild allegations and abuse of witnesses. The Select Committee was Ervin’s first assignment in the Senate.
He didn’t waffle or shirk or dodge the question or escape out a back door somewhere. He said something everyone could understand: “The issue before the American people is simply this: Does the Senate of the United States have enough manhood to stand up to Senator McCarthy?”
These times demand that issues be stated just as clearly. Hardly anyone is doing that, certainly not in the majority. They seem cowed, either by the bullies in the White House or their own leaders, to whom power is more important than getting at the truth. Indeed, the truth itself is under attack by a barrage of “alternative facts.”
I applaud Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina for standing up with Democrat Mark Warner to announce that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which they lead, must examine any contacts between Trump’s people and Russian officials during the campaign. But that examination must be public, not behind closed doors as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened.
Sam Ervin’s words from 43 years ago guide us once again: “Our citizens do not know whom to believe, and many of them have concluded that honest governance has been rendered impossible. We believe that the health, if not the survival, of our ... form of government requires the most candid and public investigation of the evidence. ... The nation and history itself are watching us.”
Nick Taylor is a writer and North Carolina native living in New York.