Monday, February 21, 2011

Outside the Box - February

On June 18, 1972 the Washington Post reported that a team of burglars had been arrested inside the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. The chain of events that followed unraveled the Nixon administration, forever changing the way Americans viewed their elected officials and creating a new synonym for scandal – Watergate.

Below: Senate Watergate Committee, examining the testimony of John Dean, Washington, D.C., 1973 June 26.

The Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, chaired by Sam Ervin of North Carolina, was convened in 1973 with orders to investigate the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover up. The committee’s televised hearings allowed the public to watch the scandal unfold day by day. By the end of its year and a half existence, the committee had produced thirteen volumes of testimony and exhibits and a 2,217-page final report. Their findings, in addition to those of two special prosecutors, led to the resignation of the President and Vice President of the United States, as well as the conviction of three cabinet members on felony charges.

Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia likely achieved his greatest national prominence through his role as one of the seven members of the Ervin Committee. Speaking in an interview years later, he recalled that he received nearly 3,500 letters a day during the Watergate hearings from people across the country. “And wherever I’d go in an airport,” he said, “people would rush up to me wanting my autograph.” More than just a part of the immense spectacle, Talmadge and others on the committee were holding the guilty accountable at a critical moment in American history.

Seventy-three boxes of material in the Herman E. Talmadge Collection document the Senator’s service on the Ervin Committee. They include committee and subject files, witness information, and proceeding reports, as well as correspondence, legal documents, lists, memorandums, and reports relating to committee business, political espionage, and the Bellino subcommittee. Perhaps the most unique artifact from the collection is a Watergate-inspired cross stitch created by Ms. Avis Gallagher, Ms. Patricia Gallagher, and Ms. Ruth Henry of Greensboro, North Carolina on May 14, 1974. Given to Talmadge in gratitude for his contribution to the work of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the cross stitch design depicts a rural southern home with castle turrets and a moat, mounted on a mat covered with pages from the official transcript of the Watergate hearings with emphasis on Senator Talmadge’s interrogations. The inscription on the back side of the object explains the design as follows:

During Senator Talmadge’s interrogation of John Ehrlichman, he posed an enormously important question about the extent of the inherent power of the President of the United States, and quoted a principle of law to the effect that ‘no matter how humble a man’s cottage is, even the King of England cannot enter without his consent.’ He responded to Mr. Ehrlichman’s reply by saying, ‘Down in my country we still think it is a pretty legitimate principle of law.’ That prompted the design of a typical rural Southern house with castle turrets and a moat.

Talmadge felt that the Watergate investigation was one of the most important events in U.S. history. Not because of the scandal itself, but because the investigation that followed demonstrated that a republican form of government had a way of correcting the conduct of public officials. This artifact demonstrates the importance of the committee’s work in restoring public faith in government.

Post by Jan Levinson, Outreach Archivist, Russell Library

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