Rufus Edmisten, Deputy Chief Counsel, Senate Watergate Committee
Interviewed by Kate Scott, Senate Historical Office, on September 8, 2011
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Rufus Edmisten recounts a phone call to the White House that commenced with an awkward slip of the tongue.
Edmisten: I’ll have to tell this story that I have never told on paper. After the Dean revelations, no, after the revelations of the tape by Mr. Butterfield, Alexander Butterfield, in the dungeon room—
Scott: In the dungeon. I wish we had a picture of that room.
Edmisten: Oh yeah, I can show you where it is. If it’s there or not. We can walk down there. It was on the basement of the New Senate Office Building. After that was revealed, now obviously you are going to talk about, we’ve got to subpoena those tapes. So the committee met in Ervin’s office. Obviously before any subpoena goes out, that’s pretty heady stuff. You want to talk to the president. So we are sitting in Ervin’s main office, 337 Old Senate Office Building, old SOB. They are talking about, “Well, there is no choice. We’ve got to subpoena the president.” But Howard Baker said, “Let’s talk to the president first.” Senator Ervin just instinctively turned and said, “Rufus, go get the president on the phone.” It was like a farm boy growing up, “Rufus, go milk the cow. Feed the chickens.” To him. I knew enough to have a number, we regularly call the White House when you need to provide this witness or that witness. We have this little anteroom beside the committee room. The committee is in there talking and jabbering around and I dialed the number and finally they get me to who I suppose is Rose Mary Woods. I suppose because I always thought that she was the one with whom I talked because she was his personal secretary. I said, “Ms. Woods, this is Rufus Edmisten. I’m the deputy chief counsel for the Senate Watergate committee.” “Yes sir, Mr. Edmisten.” I said, “Ms. Woods, Senator Ervin and Senator Baker would like to speak with the President.” She says, “Hold on, I’ll be back.” So I’m waiting on her to come back on the phone. I’m just thinking of all the times that Richard Nixon had said that the Ervin committee was out to get him. “Sam Ervin’s out to get me.” All of a sudden, on the phone is the president. “Senator Ervin, this is Richard Nixon.” That caught me totally by surprise.
Scott: You weren’t ready.
Edmisten: Oh, no. [Scott laughs] Oh god, no. I was so just taken back that I said, “Hold on Mr. President, Senator Ervin wants to get you.” I finally realized what I said, “On the phone.” There was this long pause. I said, “Hold sir.” I went back in there and I told the committee, “Look, I just got on the phone,” and I said, “I mistakenly told the president who is on the phone that Senator Ervin wanted to get him!” I thought they was going to die laughing! I thought they would die laughing. They were rolling on the floor! And then Senator Ervin gets on the phone. It’s one-sided conversation. He is having the shaking eyebrows that I refer to as moving quicker than a windshield wiper. [Scott laughs] He was saying, “But Mr. President, we have a right to the tapes. You don’t have anything to fear if there is nothing on them that’s incriminating. We need to verify the truth of the matter, whether the things that have been said are true or not.” Nixon obviously says, “No.” Then that’s when they vote. They voted there in the room and then they voted unanimously in public at one point to do it. But they voted in the room that day, as I recall, to subpoena the president. That was one of the funniest things. Later, I’ve thought about, here I’m telling President Nixon that Senator Ervin wanted to “get him” and then I finally remember “get you on the phone.”
Read the entire interview.