“Senator Sam” Continues to Offer Lessons of Authenticity

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

"Yes, I was born right over there. You can see I haven’t gotten very far in life," remarked former Sen. Sam Ervin while pointing to his birthplace, a white house across the street from his residence in Morganton.

Such were the comments of a "country lawyer" who later chaired the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. It was this laid-back humor and charm that made unpretentious Senator Sam — "the most North Carolinian of North Carolinians" — an underestimated foe on numerous occasions. He undoubtedly used his homespun appeal many times to manipulate opponents so they developed a false confidence, exhausted their energies, and let down their guard. Then they were exposed to a walloping counterattack — an intellectual and legal rope-a-dope, if you will.

Ervin, however, was not good at delivering sound bites for TV and radio. He eschewed well-packaged arguments that came across as humdrum or canned bureaucratic speak. His explanations were lengthy and sounded folksy. Yet the stories were purposeful: The former Morganton trial lawyer argued to win.

During the Watergate hearings, at times Lawrence M. Baskir, a former chief counsel to the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights and the current chief judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, could not tell whether the North Carolinian was unsophisticated or shrewd.

In a telephone interview with historian Karl Campbell, an Ervin biographer, Baskir remarked: "A person like Ervin is either naive … and eventually lucky that fate and time make it all work very well, or he is so subtle and so sophisticated that it looks like it is all happening without him."

Baskir soon realized that the senator was able "to appeal to the jury," and in Watergate, Ervin knew that the jury was the Senate, the American people, and the media. "He knew how to play to them," Baskir concluded.

As Campbell writes in Senator Sam Ervin: Last of the Founding Fathers, "Sam Ervin may have been described as a ‘country lawyer’ and a ‘good ol’ boy,’ but to southerners these labels suggest political acumen, not naivete."

Throughout the Watergate hearings, Ervin proved this to be true. Although many civil rights, labor, and women’s rights activists opposed the strict constructionist views of the Tar Heel senator, Ervin’s national popularity soared as Richard Nixon’s declined.

Ervin endeared himself to Americans from North Carolina to California. He gained a new generation of admirers by defending privacy rights during the Watergate hearings. He used a biblical reference in one instance: "One of the prophets described the mountain of the Lord as being a place where every man might dwell under his own vine and fig tree with none to make him afraid."

He supported this theological argument by citing William Pitt the Elder and offering a history lesson from the Revolutionary War period: "The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake, the wind may blow through it, the storm may enter it, but the King of England cannot enter. All his force dares not cross the threshold," Ervin said. "And yet we are told here today, that what the King of England can’t do, the president of the United States can."