Fifty years ago today, on July 23, 1973, Rufus Edmisten delivered the Nixon subpoena, becoming the first person in US history to deliver a subpoena to a sitting president.
It was the height of the Watergate hearings that had consumed the nation that year. What we now refer to as the Watergate Scandal, which would lead to Richard Nixon becoming the first president to resign, was, at first, not viewed as a significant event. The White House Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler dismissed it as “a third-rate burglary”. However, it was a day that would change the country forever—and North Carolina played a starring role in the aftermath.
The Watergate investigation and hearings were heavily influenced by North Carolinians like Rufus Edmisten, without whom history would look very differently.
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At the time of the break-in, Edmisten, a native of Boone, was working for Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina, who would go on to Chair the Watergate Committee. At the time, Edmisten recalls thinking, “What in the world are people coming out of the Watergate Building being arrested doing in suits and ties?”
It would become clear that this break-in was far more consequential than it initially appeared. “It turned out to be not only be silly and crazy, but criminal,” Edmisten says.
While the White House initially referred to the break-in as a “third-rate burglary”, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s investigation into the break-in revealed something far more serious. In response, the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, chose Sen. Ervin —a Morganton, NC native—to head the Watergate Committee. The Committee’s mission, Edmisten said, was to uncover “the origins of the break-in, why were they there, and had they broken any laws?”
Over 50,000 pieces of mail were received by the Committee each month, Edmisten said. The scandal dominated American life. The hearings were broadcast across the television networks. Edmisten remembers a niece writing to ask when she’d be able to watch her cartoons again.
As the investigation unfolded, it became clear that the president of the United States was involved in the conspiracy.
Finding the Tapes
One of the biggest discoveries made by the Committee was uncovered by Eugene Boyce, an attorney from Raleigh.
During Boyce’s July 16, 1973, interrogation of Alexander Butterfield, a deputy assistant to Nixon, Butterfield revealed that there was a secret taping system in the White House. The Committee sought access to the tapes. The White House denied the existence of any tapes, but today we know that, in fact, Nixon had more than 3,000 hours of taped communication.
On July 23, 1973, Rufus Edmisten was tasked with delivering the subpoena for the tapes to the White House, becoming the first person in American history to deliver a subpoena to a sitting president. Today, the subpoena is still located in Edmiston’s Raleigh office.
In an interview with Cardinal & Pine, Edmisten said he doesn’t believe Nixon personally approved the break-in, but he made several efforts to obstruct the Committee’s investigation. The president went so far as to propose paying off the Watergate burglars, he says.
After Nixon’s tapes were made public in early August 1974–including the infamous “smoking gun” tape in which Nixon and a top advisor were heard discussing the cover-up and ways to block investigations into the break-in–the pressure against Nixon reached a breaking point.
A Turning Point
Edmisten says it’s important to remember that Nixon left office because his own party eventually turned against him.
Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania led a group of Republican senators to the White House, gave Nixon an ultimatum, telling him that he would be impeached in the US House of Representatives, and that when the matter arrived in the Senate, many of them would vote to convict him, which would have resulted in his removal from office.
Rather than become the first president to be removed from office, Nixon opted to be the first president to resign on Aug. 8, 1974.
Following Gerald Ford’s ascension to the presidency, he granted the former president a full pardon for his involvement in Watergate. Edmisten says that he supported that decision at the time, believing that the country had been through so much.
After Watergate, Edmisten resigned from the committee and Sen. Ervin’s office. He returned to North Carolina, and continued in politics, where he was twice elected attorney general.
Edmiston was also the Democratic nominee for governor in 1984. He lost, but in 1988 and 1992, Edmisten was elected secretary of state for North Carolina.
Early in his tenure as attorney general, Edmisten, who was 33 at the time, thought he was the youngest attorney general in the U.S.. But while attending a national conference for attorneys general in San Francisco, he met a young man from Arkansas. Assuming he was a staffer, Edmisten asked who his attorney general was.
“I am,” the man replied.
“What’s your name?” Edmisten said.
“How old are you?”
“I hate your ass,” Edmisten recalls telling him. “I thought I was just elected the youngest attorney general in the country.”
Edmisten and Clinton went on to be friends. During Clinton’s presidency, Edmisten and his wife were invited to the White House to stay in the Lincoln bedroom. They’ve also written one another over the years, and when Edmisten’s father passed away, President Clinton called to express his condolences to him and his mother.
Rufus’ Pride and Joy
In an interview with Cardinal & Pine, Edmisten reflected on some of his proudest achievements as a public servant.
He’s proud of his effort to block a midwestern power company from damming up the New River, which flowed through Ashe, Allegheny, and Edmisten’s home county of Watauga.
Edmisten said the dam would have flooded over thousands of homes. So he lobbied Congress to pass a law called the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserving the river, which is believed to be the second oldest river in the world.
He’s not an elected official anymore, but Edmisten said he still keeps up with issues facing the state. He said he believes the biggest issue facing North Carolina is growth. NC needs to ensure growth is managed properly, and that North Carolina’s natural beauty is preserved.
“When you look at how many acres every month are being bulldozed over for development, that is one of the big problems we face.”
Edmisten said he also sees gun violence as a major issue.
“When I grew up, the NRA taught gun safety,” he said. “My daddy was a wildlife protector, he knew all about guns. When he got home he took that gun and put it on the highest shelf he could find. We were told under no uncertain terms were we to touch it.”
But the culture around guns is different today, he said. Edmisten criticized gun rights “absolutists,” who he says have misrepresented the intent of the 2nd Amendment.
“They think it allows you to have an AR-15 as a God-given right,” he said.
A Five-Decade Career
Edmisten’s career has spanned five decades, from a time when North Carolina was a largely agricultural state, with some growing cities, to the 21st century, where Charlotte is among the 15 largest cities in the country, and the Triangle has become a hub for global businesses like Apple.
It could be argued Edmisten’s journey is a microcosm of North Carolina’s transformation. But Edmisten hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
And he hasn’t forgotten that his first public office was at the relatively young age of 33. Young people should feel just as charged to get involved today, he said.
“Everything you do is ruled by something political and something governmental. How fast you drive, is your food fit to eat or not, your healthcare system. It’s all governed by somebody being able to have a voice in that, and why not be part of it?”