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Pondering the paradox of 'Senator Sam,' his heritage

Pondering the paradox of 'Senator Sam,' his heritage

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SENATOR SAM ERVIN: Last of the Founding Fathers. By Karl E. Campbell. University of North Carolina Press. 448 pages. $34.95.

This excellent book on Samuel J. Ervin Jr. (1896-1985) is by Karl E. Campbell, a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill who has taught at UNC Charlotte and Pfeiffer University, and now is an associate professor of history at Appalachian State University. Sam Ervin became a familiar figure: avuncular, Southern drawl, a plentiful supply of folksy stories, courtly to the ladies, friendly and fair to one and all -- and segregationist to the core. He gained fame for his relentless pursuit of Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate hearings.

Campbell focuses on events leading to Watergate, and ponders the "central paradox" of Ervin's life: how he could champion civil liberties and at the same time oppose civil rights for black Americans. Ervin graduated from the University of North Carolina, served in the Army during World War I, and after receiving a law degree from Harvard Law School, practiced law with his father in Morganton. He quickly gained a reputation as a folksy but brilliant lawyer and constitutional scholar who treated everyone -- rich, poor, black, white -- impartially.

Although not especially politically minded, Ervin rose through the ranks of North Carolina's Democratic "progressive plutocracy" to become its most famous senator. Arriving in Washington in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared separate-but-equal-schools unconstitutional, Sen. Ervin immediately set about discrediting Brown v. Board of Education and blocking its implementation.

His nimble mind and strict interpretation of the Constitution enabled him to come up with a reasonable argument for opposing, for instance, forced busing to integrate schools and affirmative action. Campbell points out a curious metamorphosis in Ervin's thinking. He rethought Brown v. Board of Education and decided that it was, after all, the correct decision because it declared the Constitution to be color blind, and therefore busing on the basis of color and affirmative action were unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Ervin strongly defended civil liberties, especially the right to privacy against government surveillance and attempted control. This set him on a collision course with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (he served on the committee that drew up a censure resolution), and finally with President Richard Nixon. Campbell shows how Ervin's clashes with Nixon's anti-crime program, violations of freedom of the press (one involving reporter Daniel Schorr, now in his 90s and still reporting on radio), and claims of executive privilege in the interests of national security, were rehearsals for the Watergate hearings. Ervin stressed the "chilling effect" surveillance had on individuals' efforts to exercise their constitutional rights.

As the chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee, the jowly senator from North Carolina, with his Southern drawl and a seeming inexhaustible supply of down-home stories, became a familiar figure during the hearings. Even liberals forgot for a time his tireless efforts to block civil rights for black Americans.

The author considers the details of the Watergate affair as sufficiently covered in other books, and turns to the fundamental question: "How could such a reputed champion of constitutional rights for all Americans be such a consistent foe of civil rights for black Americans?" The short answer is that Ervin could not get past the conservative values of the genteel elite he had been born into. "A genuine southern gentleman," he "worked to improve the lives of individual African Americans within the system [but] he never attempted to reform the system itself." It should be noted that Ervin also opposed labor unions and women's-rights activists.

This volume includes many interesting details about Ervin's personal life and his family. The author treats his subject with respect but does not shrink from pointing out inconsistencies in his life and thought. Although Sam Ervin has been considered a great constitutional scholar -- thus the sobriquet "the last of the Founding Fathers" -- Campbell shows that his interpretation of the Constitution was partly based, as all interpretations are, on his own background and values.

Like the recently deceased Jesse Helms, Ervin strongly denied that he was a racist, insisting that he based his political decisions on the immutable principles of the Constitution. However, as Campbell points out, Ervin's interpretation of the Constitution evolved. It is a moot point whether Ervin was a racist or not because racism can be expressed in a wide variety of forms and in various degrees. Suffice it to say that this Southern gentleman never abandoned his heritage with its undeniable racial element.

This reviewer highly recommends this book to all readers, especially North Carolinians. It is extensively researched and documented, gracefully written, and includes a variety of photographs and illustrations.

■ Howard Barnes is a professor of history atWinston-Salem State University.


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