Former Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr., who symbolized to the nation a latter-day Diogenes bent on finding the truth in an era of Watergate lies, died Tuesday in a Winston-Salem, N.C., hospital.
The archetypical Southern storyteller was 88, and doctors said he died of respiratory failure complicated by kidney failure.
On March 30, Ervin had undergone gall bladder surgery at Grace Hospital in his hometown of Morganton and developed kidney failure as a complication. He was transferred Monday to North Carolina Baptist Hospital, where he died.
The Senate's televised Watergate hearings, over which Ervin presided in 1973, catapulted the North Carolina Democrat from relative obscurity to national acclaim as a folk hero. This was at an age when most public men had dropped from view.
Ervin's cherubic features, his mobile eyebrows that bobbed constantly up and down like corks in a rapids, his vast repertoire of folk humor and his ability to summon righteous indignation over the scandals of Watergate had a magnetic appeal to television viewers.
It was because of Ervin's reputation for integrity and stubborn independence that he was chosen to head the Senate Select Committee to investigate the Watergate scandals.
Ervin, in fact, was probably the only Democrat in the Senate who could meet the rigid standards set by then-Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) for the committee chairmanship.
Mansfield's first standard was that the chairman could not be a past or potential presidential candidate, which ruled out most Senate Democrats. Mansfield also wanted an experienced lawyer, preferably one with judicial experience.
Furthermore, Ervin had never been a partisan Democrat. He had supported President Richard M. Nixon on the Vietnam War and had voted to sustain some Nixon vetoes. In short, as Mansfield put it, Ervin "was the only man on either side of the aisle who would have the respect of the Senate as a whole."
Wanted the Truth
The hearings were supposedly to recommend legislation that would prevent a recurrence of the scandals that ultimately toppled Nixon. Ervin said it was "more important that the American people get the truth than a few people go to jail."
He opened the televised hearings on May 17, 1973, by stating that the committee's purpose was to "probe into assertions that the very system has been subverted." He charged that if those accusations were true, Watergate was a conspiracy to "steal from Americans their most precious heritage, the right to vote in a free election."
But Ervin did not maintain that philosophical attitude for long.
Over objections that he was pressing witnesses too hard, Ervin replied: "I'm just an old country lawyer, and I don't know the finer ways to do it. I just have to do it my way."
The committee heard presidential adviser John Dean say that Nixon knew of the attempted Watergate cover-up and had discussed payments of hush money. Alexander Butterfield first revealed the existence of the Oval Office taping system in testimony before the committee.
As the hearings wound on, Ervin quoted Shakespeare, telling one witness who claimed he had perjured himself out of loyalty to Nixon:
"Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies."
That he attributed the quotation to the wrong play, "Henry IV," instead of the play "Henry VIII" mattered little to delighted television audiences.
But perhaps the quotation that best summed up Ervin's and the nation's attitude toward Watergate was Ervin's own:
"If men and women of capacity refuse to take part in politics and government, they condemn themselves, as well as the people, to the punishment of living under bad government."
But the American people saw only one dimension of Ervin in that hot summer of 1973--perhaps not surprisingly because he was a bundle of paradoxes during his 20-year career in the U.S. Senate.
By both instinct and birthright, Ervin was a bona fide Southern conservative and an uncompromising anti-communist. Yet in 1954, the very year he entered the Senate by gubernatorial appointment to fill a vacancy (and where he was sworn in by then-Vice President Nixon), Ervin played a leading role in the censure of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) for abuse of Senate power in his anti-communist campaign.
Ervin, who never missed a chance to illustrate a point with a story, told the Senate that McCarthy's witch hunts reminded him of "Uncle Ephraim Swink," an arthritic mountaineer who was asked at a revival meeting what the Lord had done for him.
Struggling to his feet, Uncle Ephraim said:
"Brother, he has mighty nigh ruint me." And that, Ervin said, was what McCarthy had done to the Senate.
Ervin's tales were not always particularly funny. But he told them with such zest, his eyes sparkling, that his fellow senators and listeners elsewhere could not refrain from laughing.