Elaine Godfrey: Tell me about your role on the Watergate Committee.
Rufus Edmisten: I guess you might say I’m now one of the oldest hands around. All the members of the committee are dead, except [Republican] Senator [Lowell P.] Weicker. [Chief Counsel] Sam Dash is dead, [Minority Counsel] Fred Thompson is dead.
My role was deputy chief counsel of the Watergate Committee. I like to describe it this way, as Fred Thompson once did: “Everybody knew that Rufus was Ervin’s man.” I appreciate that because who wouldn’t want to be Ervin’s man?
Godfrey: When people think of Senator Ervin, they think of Watergate. But you had known him for a long time before that.
Edmisten: There’s a lot about Senator Ervin that was way before anything called Watergate even occurred. Ervin was big into the privacy issue. He was extremely interested in [the 1970 revelation that the U.S. Army was conducting domestic investigations on U.S. civilians]—it just infuriated him. He was the unheralded leader of those that thought the government had no business snooping on people.
Godrey: Before all of this, you worked with him as counsel on Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, which focused on civil rights and constitutional amendments. Then, when Ervin became chairman of the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, he named you chief counsel. What was that like?
Edmisten: Unknown to me—and, of course, the senator—we were doing a rehearsal for Watergate. We were studying separation of powers, executive privilege, impoundment of funds. Senator Ervin had been having a battle with Nixon since he was first elected in 1968, battling what he called excesses of executive power. [Ervin] referred to “the imperial presidency,” where the president would say things like “the president can do whatever he wants to do.”
These are all the principles that came up during Watergate. Before, nobody would attack a president, but it didn’t bother Senator Ervin. And ironically, he had been sworn in in 1954 by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.*
Godfrey: In 1973, the Watergate Committee was formed, and Ervin asked you to come on. Why?
Edmisten: Everybody was vying around Capitol Hill to get a piece of this thing called Watergate, because it was in The Washington Post every day. [Senate Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield named Senator Ervin [chairman of the panel] because he wanted a man that everybody trusted. I think everybody would agree [Ervin] was the perfect man to lead the hearings.
Ervin asked me to be the deputy chief counsel, because he said “Rufus knows Capitol Hill.” I had been with him since 1964. He said, “I got to have somebody I can depend on to help me get this stuff done.”
Godfrey: What was it like working on the committee when the hearings came around?
Edmisten: I was in charge of press credentials, lining up that stuff. I was helping prepare witnesses, helping interrogate them, in what I called the “interrogation dungeon.” Before anybody went public, we interrogated them in this little windowless room down in the basement of the Dirksen building. Dash brought some bright people on [staff], and I brought some qualified people on from North Carolina, some people from George Washington University Law School.