My first job out of school, in 1968, was editing transcripts and answering constituent mail for U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, D-NC. This was five years before he became famous for chairing the Senate Watergate Committee, which revealed that President Nixon had a secret taping system in the Oval Office.
He was a Southern conservative, but not a typical one. He was a genuine expert on Constitutional law. Before he was appointed to the Senate to fill an unexpired term, he was chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. The top law professors in the top law schools in the country considered him a peer.
Ervin opposed civil rights laws on Constitutional grounds because he was against laws protecting particular groups. “Why not pass a law for people with red hair?” he’d say to supporters of civil rights laws. It was a genuine blind spot in his understanding.
My father, who was a constitutional expert in his own right, used to say, “Ervin’s Constitution did not include the 14th Amendment.” He also said that if he were an African American on trial in North Carolina, he would want Ervin for a judge.
When a reporter from the Carolina Israelite, a newspaper that covers the North Carolina Jewish community, asked Washington representatives of national Jewish organizations their opinion of Sen. Ervin, my father answered, “He’s a Southern senator, so naturally we disagree on a lot of issues. But basically we think he’s a real mensch.” That’s the nicest, most respectful thing you can call a person in Yiddish.
On First Amendment issues, Ervin was a real strict constructionist. It was not just a catch-phrase. On freedom of religion, speech, assembly, petition, and press, the Constitution says “no law abridging…” To Ervin, that meant no law. He opposed surveillance on American political dissenters.
Explaining positions I disagreed with in Ervin’s constituent mail was easier than it sounds. All his positions were based on constitutional principles I agreed with. When the same principles brought us to different positions on issues, I explained the principle, and put the boss’s opinion at the bottom. Sometimes, I argued both sides of the issue, and put the boss’s opinion at the end. Informing the reader was not against my principles.
The experience was extremely valuable years later, when I was hired to write editorials for the conservative Lawrence Eagle-Tribune newspaper. There, if I could not write an editorial in good conscience, they’d ask somebody else.
Capitol Hill was a unique perch to watch the upheavals of 1968. I was a typical college kid, with the typical opinions of Oberlin College students. I supported Robert Kennedy for President, which made me conservative in Oberlin. In Washington, I fell off the left end. They even my hair was long. It was just over the ears.
One morning, I started the car to go to work, and learned Robert Kennedy had been shot, and would either die or become a vegetable. When I got to work, the Republican counsel in the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, where my desk was, was having a party at his desk, calling all his friends. “Isn’t this FANTASTIC!”
“Jesus, Larry,” everybody said. “Well, my political evaluation of him hasn’t changed,” he said.
I also watched the riots in the streets outside the Democratic convention in Chicago. A blue ribbon panel later called concluded that the police rioted. The Democratic counsel could not understand why I refused to support Hubert Humphrey. A photo of my Oberlin friend Bruce Logan became the cover of Newsweek, his shirt torn and his face bloody. Logan was a clean-cut, non-violent Quaker. Humphrey said nothing, afraid to upset Lyndon Johnson, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and the other big power brokers in the Democratic Party. I wasn’t going to help him.
These days, people, especially news reporters, laugh at the idea that elected officials can be honest, conscientious public servants. Maybe that’s true now, though I hate to believe it. I’m glad I remember when there were a bunch of public servants among the scoundrels holding public office. I like to call attention to them now and then.