Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Not-So-Simple Country Lawyer

"I used to think that the Civil War was our country's greatest tragedy, but I do remember that there were some redeeming features in the Civil War in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming features in Watergate."

Sam Ervin

This would have been the 115th birthday of a man who was widely regarded as a national hero when I was a boy but who seems to be largely forgotten today — Sam Ervin.

He called himself a "simple country lawyer" from North Carolina, the state he represented in the U.S. Senate for 20 years, but that didn't do justice to the man or his life's achievements.

He graduated from Harvard Law School, and he liked to joke that he completed the work "backwards," taking the third–year courses first, the second–year courses second and the first–year courses last. I'm not sure how he managed to do that, but apparently he did. He even passed the bar before he finished his work on his law degree.

Many great legal minds have spent all or part of their careers in Washington, D.C., but Ervin's was one of the finest — and perhaps its most noble characteristic was its willingness to embrace the kinds of shifts and changes that are inevitable in a diverse, pluralist system.

For many years, "Senator Sam," as he was affectionately known when he chaired the Senate's Watergate investigation committee, was a defender of segregation and the Jim Crow laws that still defined much of the South in the first half of the 20th century — but he changed his position and became a champion of civil liberties.

I've always felt that was a hallmark of an intelligent, mature person — the ability to keep an open mind, to concede when one has been wrong and to change one's position when facts and/or times change. Frankly, I have known few such people in my life.

I'm sure it would have been enlightening to hear Ervin's thoughts on 21st century America and the world.

But perhaps not.

Senator Sam was a man of his times, a product of his times. He was born in the late 19th century — before cars and airplanes, before radio and long before television. He suited the people he represented — but their descendants may or may not have been comfortable with him.

They might have been, though.

Admittedly, Senator Sam wasn't flashy, which might have been a severe strike against him in an internet–and–iPhone–dominated era, and it was indisputably true that he was a country lawyer — albeit one with a degree from Harvard — but he was far from simple.

He possessed a kind of wisdom that was once called common sense.

It never goes out of style — but sometimes (like now) it is in short supply.

No comments: