BOONE—People under the age of 45 might wonder how a 77-year-old U.S. senator from North Carolina became a pop hero during the Watergate hearings. But those who grew up watching the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the hearings know Sam Ervin as much for his folksy tales and animated eyebrows as his defense of the Constitution.
Karl E. Campbell, an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University, has written a biography about the late Ervin so that a new generation of people can be introduced to “Senator Sam.”
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, “Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers” looks at Ervin’s role in the Watergate hearings, his long-running feud with Richard Nixon, his conflicting stance on civil rights and civil liberties, and the Burke County native’s love of the South. It will be released Nov. 19.
Campbell says his book could easily be subtitled “The Road to Watergate.”
“This book shows how Watergate was built from the conflicts that had been emerging between Ervin and Nixon over the years. I think that (information) really changes the way we see Watergate,” Campbell said.
For years, Ervin had battled Nixon over policies related to domestic spying, civil liberties and the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
“My own interpretation of Watergate is that it is a mistake for us to dismiss it as simply Richard Nixon’s moral failings,” Campbell said. “I think it was a constitutional crisis in the relationship between the branches of government, and it’s one that may be rising again today.”
Campbell based his book on Ervin’s papers, housed in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill, the presidential papers of Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, Nixon and Ford; and the papers of various senators with whom Ervin worked during his 20 years in office.
Campbell chose not to interview too many people who knew or worked for Ervin because he felt they had developed a polarized view of the man. For Campbell, letters written to and by Ervin were more powerful materials.
Among them was a letter in which Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to give Ervin tape recordings related to the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex. Campbell also read constituent mail written to Ervin during the hearings that called him a hero or the devil, depending on the writer’s point of view.
“There is something magical when you hold these papers,” Campbell said.
As he wrote the biography, Campbell kept one question in mind: How did a conservative Bible- quoting, Southern segregationist become the liberal hero of Watergate? Ervin was known as someone committed to civil liberties, but at the same time he fought against civil rights.
“Sam Ervin changed over time, and the change was towards a real respect for individual privacy,” Campbell said. “The more Ervin saw the government threatening civil liberties, the more he championed for restricting government power. Sam Ervin stood up and tried to defend individuals’ rights.”
Campbell believes Ervin’s concerns about the far-reaching effect of unchecked government powers are applicable today.
“We are in a time when government actions and events are combining to threaten our basic civil liberties,” Campbell said. “I hope this book and Sam Ervin will help us remember that (personal) freedom has to be fought for by every generation. It can’t be taken for granted,” Campbell said. “I hope that Ervin will inspire all of us to find the best balance between national security and civil liberties.”
Campbell will read from and sign copies of his book Nov. 29 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at Appalachian’s University Bookstore.