RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — When you walk up the 20 steps into Rufus Edmisten’s law office in the heart of downtown Raleigh, his role in one of the 20th century’s most significant events is evident.

Right there, on the table outside his spacious office, is a glass-encased subpoena. In front of that is a set of cocktail napkins with the phrase “You’ve been served” embossed on them. That was Edmisten’s moment in the limelight.

He was a 30-year-old attorney on the staff of the man he admired as much as anyone in professional life, North Carolina’s Senior Senator Sam Ervin. Ervin was the chairman of the committee the US Senate had just set up to investigate what at first appeared to be “a third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.

During testimony, one of President Nixon’s staff, Alexander Butterfield, told the committee how he oversaw the installation of a secret taping system in the Oval Office. That was a bombshell.

“When the taping system was discovered, there was a meeting in Senator Ervin’s office, and (the committee members) were saying, ‘Well, how are we going to get those tapes?’” said Edmisten, who was in that meeting.

“And all of a sudden, Senator Ervin said, ‘Well, we ought to talk to the president first.’ And he said to me, ‘Rufus, go get the president on the phone,’ sort of like, go get a loaf of bread. I was like ‘OK.’ I went into this little anteroom, and I dialed up the White House and got Rosemary Wood because I knew that number. She was the president’s secretary of the famous 18-minute gap in the tapes. I said, ‘Ms. Wood, this is Rufus Edmisten, the deputy chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee, and Senator Ervin would like to speak to the president.’”

Edmisten remembers thinking, as he spoke to Woods, “I’m in the big time now. She said, ‘Well, hold on. I’ll be right back.’ Well, you’ve got to remember, all during that time, President Nixon was saying the committee was out to get him. Well, all the sudden, there came this commanding voice on the phone: Senator Ervin, this is Richard Nixon. I was taken aback…that was the president. And I unconsciously blurted out, ‘Mr. President, Senator Ervin wants to get you…on the phone!’ I thought I would die. What had I done?”

Later that summer, it was Edmisten who had set up a meeting with Nixon’s attorneys to deliver the subpoena that required the president to turn over all the tapes he had from the Oval Office.

“We rode down Pennsylvania Avenue. A whole host of news people were following,” Edmisten said. We went to the Executive Office Building where it had been prearranged that I would deliver the subpoena to the president’s counsel. I kept thinking that ‘I’m doing something here that’s probably a tiny footnote in history. We’d been through so many things with Watergate that it was almost another chore to me. And we arrived at the White House, and I realized there must’ve been a hundred reporters there lined up because this was a big deal. It was going to determine whether the facts were going to come out about what John Dean had testified to. And it wasn’t until about two days later that I realized that it was very significant that a subpoena had been delivered and here I was a little boy from Boone, NC, doing that. And I’ve often thought about today’s world and especially the Jan. 6 Committee where they ignore subpoenas daily. During the Watergate hearings, I do not recall a time…when anybody defied a subpoena. One time, somebody balked on a subpoena, and Senator Ervin said, ‘Well, if you don’t come and testify before the committee, I’ll send the marshals after you, and we’ll imprison you in the basement of the Senate office building.”

At the time, Nixon seemed to be “Enemy #1” to so many Americans, and Edmisten believes the president didn’t do himself any favors with his personality.

“He was a strange man. He craved power,” Emisten said. “He didn’t like the press. That was a hallmark.”

Looking back, Edmisten believes Nixon could have survived the Watergate scandal if either he’d never installed the taping system or if he’d destroyed the tapes before they were subpoenaed, which was something he had the legal right to do.

“I think he would have survived it,” Edmisten said. “And very frankly, he might have gone down as one of the better presidents. I know that’s hard for some of my Democratic friends to take, but he did establish the Environmental Protection Agency. He opened the door to China. We probably would have been at war with China (if Nixon hadn’t started a diplomatic relationship with the Chinese Communist Party).”

Edmisten came home to North Carolina soon after Watergate and became the state’s attorney general from 1974 through 1984 when he lost a bid for governor to Republican Jim Martin. He then served as secretary of state for North Carolina from 1988 through 1996.

See more about Edmisten’s role in political history in this edition of the Buckley Report.