Rufus Edmisten (right), deputy chief counsel on the Senate Watergate committee, at a 1973 hearing

Some advice for Nancy Pelosi, from a Watergate veteran

You meet the most unusual historical figures in hospitals.

Several days ago, I paid a visit to an ailing Max Cleland, the former U.S. senator, and his significant other. (He’s much better and at home now, thank you very much.)

I walked in on something like a conclave. Already with Cleland that Friday afternoon were Henry Turner, an old Herman Talmadge hand, and Rufus Edmisten, the former North Carolina secretary of state.

Emory University Hospital suspected that we three outsiders carried the plague, and so had dressed us all in bright blue surgical gloves and lemon-yellow gowns. We looked like a trio of Oompa Loompa escapees from a Willie Wonka factory, talking about old times. Zell Miller and such.

Only after the other two visitors left did Cleland remind me why the name of Edmisten seemed so familiar. Forty-five years ago, he was deputy counsel for the Senate Watergate committee investigating Richard Nixon.

At age 31, Edmisten did something no one had done before, or has since. He served a congressional subpoena on a sitting president of the United States. Given the current state of things in Washington, he was a man worth chasing down.

“Obviously, there are many parallels with what was going on in 1973 and what’s going on today,” said Edmisten a few days later. He now has a private practice in Raleigh, N.C.

“First of all, you have a special prosecutor. Secondly, you have a number of committees swirling around on Capitol Hill. You have the same questions come up, over and over again — executive privilege. The tendency toward an imperial presidency,” he said. And this was before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency as a means of funding his border wall.

Said Edmisten: “If Ervin were around, he’d be going nuts over this assertion they’re making over at the White House, that the president can do almost anything.”

That would be a reference to U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, the former judge who chaired the Watergate committee and became the nation’s favorite grandfather that worrisome summer. Edmisten grew up in Boone, N.C. – just a few miles from Ervin’s home.

By the time he was 21, Edmisten was a staffer for the North Carolina Democrat, driving Ervin by day and studying law at night. So by the time the Watergate burglary and a White House cover-up blew up, Edmisten was already a veteran of several Capitol battles. 

His parallel was Fred Thompson, the attorney who would become a U.S. senator, then eventually turn actor. Thompson answered to the ranking Republican on the Watergate committee. “Fred Thompson was Sen. Howard Baker’s man. I was Ervin’s man. Which I liked,” Edmisten said.

The organization of the Watergate committee might have some lessons for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who now rules over the U.S. House. After Nixon’s re-election in 1972, a raft of committees chaired by Senate Democrats began probes into the Republican administration.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield put a stop to the riot, and funneled all inquiries into a single panel, to be chaired by Ervin.

“That’s the one thing that I would suggest to the House,” Edmisten said. “If they want to get at this thing, they ought to think about establishing a very select committee. You’ve got about five committees now that are going after this thing, and you’re not going to get very far that way.”

Negotiations with the special prosecutor, deciding what congressional lines of inquiry won’t jeopardize Robert Mueller’s investigation, would be far more streamlined. And the Trump Administration wouldn’t be able to play one committee’s demands for records and testimony against another, Edmisten said.

Another Watergate lesson: Fill that select committee with no one who’s running for president. That was Mansfield’s first priority when he handpicked the Senate Watergate committee, which is how Herman Talmadge, D-Ga., came to be a member.

Talmadge reportedly assured his leadership that no Georgia Democrat in his right mind would even think about running for president in the 1970s.

But back to that subpoena.

Rufus Edmisten, with a congressional subpoena for President Richard Nixon, in 1973. Courtesy Rufus Edmisten.

The Senate Watergate committee had just heard from John Dean, the White House counsel who had flipped on President Nixon. Just as former counsel/fixer Michael Cohen has flipped on President Trump.

In his testimony, Dean mentioned that in his talks with Nixon, he had the vague sense that the conversation was being recorded. Witnesses were routinely vetted in executive sessions to avoid surprises. Next up was Alexander Butterfield, deputy assistant to the president — a presumed nobody.

There was a party at Talmadge’s place that day, Edmisten said, and so neither he nor any senator was present when Butterfield first spilled the beans about the White House’s secret recording system to a sealed room of lesser-ranking staffers. Most of whom were from North Carolina.

The fight for the Watergate tapes was on.

Edmisten was there when Ervin and fellow senators had a private discussion over the next, unprecedented step — a subpoena ordering Nixon to deliver up all records, including the tapes, associated with the cover-up. “Talmadge said, ‘Well, Sam, don’t you think you might ought to call the president before we take this step?” Edmisten remembered. By then, Nixon was convinced that Ervin and his committee were out to get him.

And so Edmisten was ordered to ring up Rose Mary Wood, Nixon’s longtime secretary, and tell her that Ervin and Baker wished to speak to the president.

Edmisten suddenly found himself on the line with Nixon himself. “I was so taken back, I said, ‘Hold on, Mr. Ervin wants to get you.’”

Whoops. And then he stammered: “I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I mean on the phone. He wants to get you on the phone.’”

July 23, 1973, was the hottest day Edmisten can remember for several reasons. Given the advance warning, a huge crowd greeted the young man as he crawled out of the back seat of a patrol car. “I’d never seen so many cameras in my life,” he said.

Stepping into the Executive Office Building, he pulled out the subpoena and read it aloud to his reception committee. It was short. Imagine the rush of a young man addressing these words to the most powerful man on the planet: “Pursuant to lawful authority, you are hereby commanded...”

Edmisten asked for the president.

“No, you just missed him.”

Forty-five years later, Edmisten had to look up the name of the president’s attorney who actually received the order: Leonard Garment. It seemed like a new one came and went every week, he said. Another parallel to today.

But before he completed his assignment, Edmisten said he reached into the right-hand pocket of his jacket and pulled out a copy of the U.S. Constitution in booklet form. “Here. I heard you need one down here,” Edmisten told Garment, including it with the subpoena.

It was, he confessed, the flourish of a “31-year-old smart-ass from the mountains of North Carolina.”

Ervin left the Senate soon after the Watergate committee had finished its business. Edmisten returned to North Carolina as well, winning election as attorney general, then losing a campaign for governor. He would go on to be secretary of state, which is how he met Max Cleland, who then held the same position in Georgia.

Edmisten and the North Carolinians who made up the heart of the Watergate committee staff have annual reunions in Raleigh on June 17, the anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

It’s far too early to say whether they’re setting a precedent for another generation of congressional staffers.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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