Politics & Government

Amid another presidential probe, NC Watergate veterans see lessons in handling crisis

Sen. Sam Ervin of NC at Watergate hearing

U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who was chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, questions H.R. Halderman, chief of staff to President Richard Nixon, during a hearing in August 1973.
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U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who was chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, questions H.R. Halderman, chief of staff to President Richard Nixon, during a hearing in August 1973.

Gene Boyce was among the first to privately hear the bombshell admission: that Richard Nixon had secretly taped White House conversations.

James Hamilton found witness Alexander Butterfield in a barber’s chair, and convinced him to change his plans and testify about the tapes in public.

And Rufus Edmisten drove from the Capitol to the White House under police escort to serve a subpoena on the president.

The three are among a handful of Carolinians who plan to join other veterans of the Senate Watergate Committee to mark the 45th anniversary of the 1972 Watergate break-in. They’ll gather at – where else – the Watergate.

The reunion comes at a time when Washington again is awash in headlines about a presidential investigation, congressional committee hearings and special counsels.

But at a time of hyper-partisanship and polarization, Watergate veterans recall when party leaders put aside their differences for the good of the country.

“Watergate showed the importance of a fair and nonpartisan investigation when there are important matters to be looked at,” said Hamilton, 78, a Davidson College graduate from Chester, S.C. He was the committee’s assistant chief counsel and went on to practice law in Washington, where he vetted candidates for the Supreme Court and Democratic candidates for vice president.

Edmisten, 75, had worked for Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin, the committee’s chairman. He was the panel’s deputy chief counsel. He would later serve as North Carolina’s attorney general.

He said Watergate “has been the only hearing I’m aware of that didn’t break up and turn into a partisan brawl.”

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Rufus Edmisten (left) with Sen. Sam Ervin on the Watergate committee. Courtesy Rufus Edmisten

‘Well I’ll be damned’

But there are echoes of Watergate in the probes into Russian connections to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. There are investigations by two congressional panels and, like Watergate, a special counsel.

For David Erdman, a Charlotte lawyer who was a committee staffer back in 1973, Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey recalled Nixon’s firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

“It seemed like the Saturday Night Massacre all over again,” said Erdman, 67. “At that point, the Watergate comparison was inescapable.”

There are even a brief Russian connection.

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Charlotte lawyer David Erdman was a junior staffer on the Senate Watergate Committee. Courtesy David Erdman

Boyce, still a Raleigh lawyer at 84, was on the Watergate committee’s legal staff. On July 13, 1973, he was part of a small group of staffers who interviewed Butterfield, a White House aide, for hours. Finally one man asked him whether there were tapes of White House conversations.

Butterfield hesitated, then answered: “Yes,” he said.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Boyce wrote in his pocket calendar that night. But Butterfield also had said there were taping systems elsewhere, including the Aspen Cabin at Camp David, where Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev had stayed only weeks earlier.

“Oh my God, we’ve secretly tape recorded Brezhnev,” Boyce later recalled thinking.

Three days later, on a Monday, Ervin and his co-chair, Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee, decided to have Butterfield testify in public before the committee. Hamilton was tasked with getting him. Butterfield declined, saying he was too busy. Hamilton told Ervin.

“Tell Mr. Butterfield that if he is not here this afternoon, I will send the sergeant-at-arms to fetch him,” Ervin responded.

Ervin didn’t have that authority, but Hamilton passed on the threat when he found Butterfield in a barber’s chair. Butterfield’s testimony and the revelation of the tapes marked the beginning of the end for Nixon.

Gene Boyce
Gene Boyce sits behind Sen. Sam Ervin and committee counsel Sam Dash on the Senate Watergate Committee. Courtesy Gene Boyce

‘Take a look at this’

A week later, on July 23, it was Edmisten who was dispatched to subpoena the tapes. He was met outside the White House by Nixon advisers Leonard Garment and Charles Wright.

“I said, ‘The president wouldn’t be around here, would he?’” Edmisten said.

“You just missed him,” Garment replied.

Edmisten, then 32, reached into his back pocket and pulled out a copy of the Constitution.

“While we’re at it you might want to take a look at this,” he told the presidential advisers.

Erdman, who spent his time on the committee poring over campaign finance records, said the enduring lesson of Watergate is to pursue the truth.

“What was important about Watergate, however long it took, it eventually got to the truth,” Erdman said. “The goal is to … follow the paths wherever they lead.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill