Image courtesy of National Archives, Washington, D.C.
The summer of 1973, Americans stayed glued to their televisions as one of the nation’s most serious political scandals, known as Watergate, began to unfold. Friday, May 17, 2013, marked the 40th anniversary of the first televised hearing of the Senate Select Committee that investigated President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign for re-election.
May 17 also brought the opening of Watergate: Political Scandal & the Presidency,
at the N.C. Museum of History
in Raleigh. The exhibit will run through Aug. 10, 2014, one day after the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation. Admission is free.
Since many museum visitors will be too young to remember Watergate, the exhibit tells the story of this rather complicated scandal in a very straightforward, engaging way,” says RaeLana Poteat, Curator of Political and Social History. “Artifacts, photographs, video clips and a 1970 living room setting will intrigue both younger visitors and those who recall this transformative time in our nation’s history. Watergate
also highlights North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin Jr. and many other Tar Heels who played important roles in investigating the scandal."
The exhibit’s time line follows the twists and turns of the Nixon administration’s unraveling saga. The scandal began on June 17, 1972, with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Five men were arrested carrying bugging equipment, and within days, investigative reporters at the Washington Post
established links between the burglars and Nixon’s re-election campaign.
As evidence emerged, the Senate formed the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to uncover irregularities in the 1972 campaign. Sen. Ervin served as chair of the committee that spent almost three months grilling Nixon administration officials during the first phase of its hearings. Eventually, evidence presented during the Senate Select Committee hearings, House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings, and an ongoing criminal investigation led to the president’s resignation and the indictment of 40 Nixon campaign and administration officials.
Visitors to Watergate
will see significant artifacts from the Senate Select Committee hearings. Several examples follow
- A memo and a page from one version of the Nixon administration’s “enemies list.” On Aug. 16, 1971, White House Counsel John Dean sent a memo suggesting that the administration should strike out against Nixon’s political adversaries. A month later, special counsel Charles Colson replied with a 12-page list of potential “enemies” that included actors, academics, politicians and reporters.
- A page from Sen. Ervin’s handwritten draft of the opening statement he delivered on the first day of Senate Select Committee hearings.
- One of the subpoenas served to President Nixon’s lawyer on July 23, 1973, to obtain recordings of Nixon’s White House conversations. North Carolinian Rufus L. Edmisten, deputy chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee, delivered the subpoenas. The committee and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed the recordings after Nixon refused to hand them over. A major turning point of the Watergate scandal occurred when a witness revealed a secret taping system in the White House. Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to release tapes of his White House conversations.
- The gavel Sen. Ervin used while chairing the Senate Select Committee. It was presented to him by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Along with key Watergate figures, the exhibit highlights many North Carolinians who worked for the Senate Select Committee. Chief among the Tar Heels was Sen. Ervin, and Americans became enamored by his Southern charm and ready wit as the hearings continued. Although Ervin referred to himself as an “old country lawyer,” his sharp intelligence and Harvard Law School training revealed his legal expertise. Ervin’s clear sense of moral outrage at the scandal’s ongoing revelations struck a chord with many viewers.
“I was privileged to sit ringside at one of the nation’s most important unveilings of campaign and governmental corruption,” remarks Edmisten, a Raleigh attorney who has served as North Carolina’s attorney general and secretary of state. “I saw the genius of Senator Ervin as he worked his constitutional magic at the Senate Watergate hearings.”
Edmisten was responsible for interviewing several witnesses and managing many logistical decisions related to the hearings. The other Tar Heels served on the committee as lawyers, investigators, researchers and staff assistants.
exhibit focuses on the scandal’s extensive media coverage. Televised live for an average of five hours a day, the level of reporting about the hearings was groundbreaking. Additionally, investigative reporters at the Washington Post
and other newspapers exposed many crucial facts.
Watergate permeated popular culture, inspiring board games, humor books, songs and more. Several examples appear in the exhibit, such as The Watergate Scandal, “a game of cover-up and deception for the whole family,” which claims, “Nobody . . . wins. There are just losers.”
concludes with a section where museum visitors can share their thoughts about the scandal. Every few weeks, some will be selected to include in the exhibit.
“This exhibit is by far one of the most comprehensive collections of Watergate history and memorabilia, both funny and sad, that I’ve seen about our great American Constitution at work,” notes Edmisten.
Adds Poteat, “Watergate is important because it showed that our constitutional separation of powers works. The legislative and judicial branches were able to check and balance an aggressive executive branch. And while Congress passed campaign finance reforms in the wake of the scandal, many of those laws aimed at limiting large amounts of anonymous campaign money have since been overturned. So the lessons of Watergate still seem pretty relevant today.”