“Obviously, we’re looking at a preface to the Watergate scandal. This is just a beginning.”
Former deputy counsel Rufus Edmisten discusses Senator Sam Ervin’s investigative and oversight work on two subcommittees in the years before the Watergate scandal unfolded.
Edmisten: There’s no question that the spying on civilians by the military was the prime thing, at least while I was there, from ’64 until I went over to the Separation of Powers Subcommittee, whenever that was. Obviously, we’re looking at a preface to the Watergate scandal. This is just a beginning. And then the Ellsberg papers, all this stuff.
Scott: What about the Pentagon Papers? How did that impact that work of those two committees? You were on Separation of Powers then. What kind of questions did that episode provoke for Senator Ervin and the committee?
Edmisten: He was just, first of all, a break-in is a felony. Let’s forget about what it was for. A break-in was a felony. Even just as egregious for somebody whose personal thoughts about a particular policy matter was just to him unfathomable. This is getting to be a cumulative effect on the part of these people at the White House and those that surrounded Nixon who seemed to be in lock-step in creating the imperial presidency. You go along and everything that we did, the work on executive privilege, we really bore in on that. If you look back at the hearings during Separation of Powers you’d see Ervin asking the same questions then that he asked in Watergate.
Scott: It was a rehearsal!
Edmisten: Yes, from where did you get this notion that the president has the power to say he’ll withhold something or not withhold it? We listed incident after incident after incident of times when they were using executive privilege. Yes, it did go back. Our history in there showed it did go back to all kinds of presidents. Like the scholar that said to you, why is it so different? The difference is that it culminated in this case in a series of very serious criminal acts. Over 40 people went to jail over Watergate. Or got convicted. I’ll put it this way, over 40 people got indicted, not 40 went to jail. You just look on that subpoena that I delivered down there which you’ll see when you come to North Carolina, over half of them, three-fourths of them went to jail on that subpoena. Ehrlichman, former attorney general John Mitchell, etc. Here you go, I’ve always said when I give a little lecture sometimes on separation of powers, and I need to learn some stuff from you, that the Separation of Powers Subcommittee was a rehearsal for us being the chosen ones to do Watergate. I don’t know whether Mike Mansfield ever paid much attention to what we were doing, but he did really. He did. And so you just look and say, okay, these are the guys to do Watergate when all that stuff starts popping up and you think about what Ervin did with the spying on civilians. That could just have easily ended up in Separation of Powers as it could have been Constitutional Rights. Most of the stuff that we were doing on Separation of Powers had a lot of constitutional rights issues involved in it too. You track everything that we did: impoundment of funds, pocket veto. The impoundment of funds was just really bad because Congress would pass an appropriation and Nixon would just tell his crowd, I guess at the OMB, whichever one they were supposed to spend or not spend, “Don’t spend it!” He would thereby forego the will of the Congress totally. What we were having was a very, very, planned systematic breakdown of balance of powers. There was only a semblance of the balance of powers.