It was Aug. 23, 1973. Rufus Edmisten was about to deliver what would ultimately end a presidency — a congressional subpoena to turn over the Nixon tapes.
“As I was riding down Pennsylvania Avenue, it dawned on me this is the first time in history that anybody has ever done this, and this subpoena will have a lot to do with whether Richard Nixon stays in office,” Edmisten recalled.
Before Edmisten became a household name in North Carolina politics, he was the chief counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee.
”As time has passed on, I realized there aren’t many of us left who were right there in the middle of Watergate,” he said.
That includes North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin, who led the Senate investigation and who initially hired Edmisten. “Rufus,” as he’s called by most, remembers some humor on the day he changed history.
“And I got in the back of a police car and somebody said, ‘Is that the first time you got in a police car for the right reasons.’ I said, yeah, I was in there for the right reasons this time,” Edmisten recalled. “I did a little tricky thing that day. When I was delivering the subpoena, I happened to carry one of those time Constitutions in my back pocket.”
Edmisten handed over that copy of the constitution along with the subpoena for the Nixon tapes.
Comparing that period of history to today’s headlines, Edmisten sees it more as a crisis of separation of powers rather than a constitutional crisis.
“If things go on the way they are, then I think the Congress would fade into history as nothing more than a body that dishes out money and makes a few laws here and there,” he explained. “Because, if they don’t have the power to investigate and to see that the laws are faithfully executed, then there’s no reason for Congress to exist.”
Edmisten came back to North Carolina and won the office of Attorney General twice. He then lost a bid for the governorship to Republican Jim Martin during the Ronald Reagan era.
Edmisten wasn’t done. He was voted North Carolina’s Secretary of State twice after that. But, his second term was marred by an investigation into possible wrongdoing.
“Always when I got into difficulty, I went to the hills. I headed to the hills to see my mother. She was the bedrock. She was the queen of the roost. Soft-spoken, yet when she spoke, everybody listened,” Edmisten said.
No criminal charges were filed, but he resigned mid-term. One of the primary reasons was to spare additional pain to his family, including his mother and father. In his new autobiography, “That’s Rufus: A Memoir of Tar Heel Politics, Watergate and Public Life,” he doesn’t shy away from that period.
“Sometimes you just get full of yourself, and I did. I’ve learned from it. That’s the one good thing,” he said. ”If you get down in the valley of despair, quit digging. Stop digging the hole deeper. Climb out of that valley of despair. Get back up there to the top of the mountain.”
The public can hear from Edmisten Thursday at the North Carolina Museum of History from 6 to 9 p.m.
Proceeds from his memoirs will go to his Super Kids Foundation, which has helped hundreds of disadvantaged children in North Carolina for the last 25 years.