Had Sam Ervin never served as the chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices (i.e., the Watergate Committee), he still would have had a distinguished career. Born in North Carolina, he was a decorated soldier in the First World War, a Harvard Law School graduate, and a successful attorney when in 1954 he won a seat in the Senate. As a freshman Democrat, he was placed on a committee charged with judging whether Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) should be censured for his zealous anti-Communist investigations.
As senator, Ervin established himself as a constitutional expert and a strict constructionist. He alternately sided with liberals defending free speech and separation of church and state, and with conservatives in opposing civil rights legislation and the Equal Rights Amendment. Not until his last year in office, however, did Ervin become a household name, when he was chosen to chair the Watergate Committee. Sitting before the cameras, he became something of a television icon, though he never embraced the pop culture that warmed to him. In an article reporting his death in 1985, the Washington Post wrote, “At a time when Americans were buffeted by the Vietnam War and Watergate and increasingly distrustful of their leaders, Ervin came across as a stern father figure who wasn’t confused about what was right and wrong, moral and evil, and who took for granted the moral courage to stand up for what was right.”
Ervin’s civic rectitude was particularly offended when President Nixon refused to allow his aides to testify before his committee, shielding them behind his claim of executive privilege. “Divine Right of kings went out with the American Revolution and doesn’t belong to White House aides,” Ervin chided. “I don’t think we have any such thing as royalty or nobility that exempts them…. That is not executive privilege. That is executive poppycock!” Turning his attention to Nixon himself, Ervin recalled a quip from Mark Twain. “The truth is very precious; use it sparingly.” Nixon, Ervin concluded, “…used it sparingly.”