As the Senate Watergate Committee was turning up the heat on President Richard M. Nixon and his closest associates in 1973, chairman Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat, became something of a national folk hero. At his death in 1985, one newspaper remembered him as “a latter-day Diogenes bent on finding the truth in an era of Watergate lies.”
But to Nixon, the courtly, 76-year-old Ervin was something else altogether.
“The president of the United States can’t be kicked around by a goddamned senile senator,” Nixon raged to White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig on July 12.
The epithet can be heard in the final installment of the Nixon recordings – 2,905 conversations totaling approximately 340 hours – released on Aug. 21 by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.
A few months before Nixon’s railed against Ervin, the secret White House recording system captured the president making disparaging remarks about Jews, blacks, Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans. The slurs came just moments after Nixon assured Charles W. Colson, one of his senior advisers, that he was not prejudiced.
We learned from the late Robert N. Butler – scholar, psychiatrist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author – that ageism is a form of bigotry. But the lesson was lost on Nixon, who called Dwight D. Eisenhower, his political benefactor and savior, a “damned old fool” and, by other accounts, referred to him from time to time as “that senile old bastard.”
Here’s a video from NBC News featuring Nixon’s rant about Ervin, with the “g” word edited out:
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