07/10/14 — Watergate memories: Witness to a part of history

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Watergate memories: Witness to a part of history

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 10, 2014 1:46 PM

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Jim Copeland talks about his experience as an aide to Sen. Sam Ervin during the infamous Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973. Copeland had a chance to see history being made up close as he worked as a "gopher" for the senators on the Watergate committee that was investigating the coverup that eventually led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.

Goldsboro attorney Jim Copeland, 62, turns to a page in a well-worn encyclopedia that has a grainy photo of the 1973 U.S. Senate Watergate Committee hearings that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

"There I am," he says pointing to a much younger version of himself sitting in the background among the political power brokers of the day.

"It was a big thing. It affected the rest of my life," Copeland said. "The people that I met there .... I don't know that I would have gone to law school. I think that I would have, but I am not sure what I would have wanted to do if it hadn't been for that."

Having grown up in politics -- his father was a justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court -- Copeland was well aware of the historical and political implications of the proceedings going on about him at the time.

"When you are taking on the president of the United States, that is not done lightly," he said. "It was a huge committee. You had a bunch of lawyers, a bunch of staff people."

The Senate had convened the committee to investigate the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters that had been directed by the Committee to Re-elect the President, the fundraising organization for Nixon.

Copeland arrived in Washington, D.C., just prior to Memorial Day in 1973 and did not return to North Carolina until the middle of August. The public hearings stopped shortly after he left, but the committee continued its work. It has been 40 years since the committee issued its 1,250-page report on June 27, 1974.

Copeland's brush with history in the summer of 1973 was the result of a chance encounter while he was between his junior and senior years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"My mother and daddy went on a cruise that Sen. (Sam) Ervin (committee chairman) was on, and a fellow named Rufus Edmisten (who later served as state attorney general) was his young assistant," Copeland said. "Rufus is about 10 years older than me and was in his early 30s. He was like chauffeuring Sam Ervin all around and everything, and my daddy got to know him fairly well.

"Of course, Rufus was deputy counsel to the Watergate Committee, and he was hiring as many North Carolinians as he could. I was looking for a job, and daddy called him. I got an appointment, went up there and saw him."

Copeland said his title was staff assistant, in other words he was "a gopher."

He sat in on the hearings when White House counsel John Dean and Nixon aide John Ehrlichman testified, but most of the time he was in another building.

"We went anywhere they wanted us to go," he said. "Twice I was in the hearings. Most of the time I was in a big committee room. Whenever they had to deliver something, pick up something from a law office or something for the committee, we did that.

"One thing that I did, me and another fellow, we went through the New York Times and Washington Post to see everything that was written about it and clip it out.'"

One of his biggest duties involved Dean.

"John Dean turned over all of his papers," Copeland said. "This was back when Xerox machines did one page at a time, and they didn't collate, even in Washington.

"I was given the responsibility of making 16 copies of that thing. It was a ton of pages, and I was doing one at a time. Rufus would call every 30 minutes, 'When are those things going to be finished?' 'I am going as fast as I can.'"

Copeland recalls that once he got through that, he loaded all of the pages onto a large cart that he wheeled into the caucus room escorted by the Capitol police.

The whole committee room was fascinating, Copeland recalled, with an audience including celebrities like John Lennon.

"He was just sitting there, waiting, like everybody else was," Copeland said. "The thing about it is the reporters, cameramen were all over the place -- just in your face. You had to step over them. It was like a mob."

Copeland said he had the opportunity to speak to Ervin on occasion.

"The main time I saw him was in the committee room hearings," he said. "I know that in this day and age we don't think about it, but the committee had, I think, one more Democrat than Republican. They picked Sen. Ervin because he was a very conservative Southern Democrat. Of course, Sen. Ervin was on the North Carolina Supreme Court. If you talked to him he didn't sound like he was a brilliant person, but he went to Harvard Law School.

"He was probably the perfect person to have that committee. (Republican Sen.) Howard Baker and Sen. Ervin did everything together. That wouldn't happen today. They agreed on everything. They agreed how to do the subpoenas, who they were going to give them to. There was amazing cooperation."

He remembers Ervin as being smart, folksy and a man who played well on television.

"People stayed glued to the television," Copeland said. "I remember my mother would watch it all day long. Then watch it again at night.

"Father watched. I think the whole country did. It was fascinating. I would have been 21. I didn't know what I was getting into."

Unlike today, the bipartisan system worked during the hearings, he said.

"They knew what they were going to do," Copeland said. "The people were fair. You had some people who were more partisan than others, but they worked together.

It was "incredible" how well the Democrats and Republicans got along, he said.

"I mean, they were taking on the president of the United States and people were being fair about it. I think part of it is because Sen. Ervin and Howard Baker worked so well together."

Baker was from eastern Tennessee and Ervin was from western North Carolina.

"They sort of understood one another and it worked out," Copeland said. "In this day and age, I don't possibly see how it could work out. They would be at each others throats the whole time.

"One side or the other would walk out (today). The truth of the matter was that Howard Baker was probably more liberal than Sen. Ervin was. He certainly wasn't a whole lot more conservative. That was amazing. It is sort of a sad commentary that it doesn't work that way, not in recent years anyway."

When he returned to school, he said, a lot of people recognized him.

"They said, 'I knew where you were this summer,'" Copeland said. "For a little boy from Murfreesboro it was a big thing to see things for real that other people saw on TV."