Archived Opinion

Burr may be second N.C. senator to make history

Burr may be second N.C. senator to make history

Martin A. Dyckman • Guest Columnist

A hero is, almost by definition, someone who didn’t set out to be one. That thought is prompted by the New York Times Sunday page-one profile of our North Carolina Senator Richard Burr. Will he be the nation’s hero in the greatest constitutional crisis since Watergate four decades ago?

According to the article, Burr — a Republican — didn’t want to be assigned to the Senate Intelligence Committee, much less to chair it, as he does now.

“Whether he likes it or not,” the article pointed out, Burr “might well be burdened with undermining not only a president he has supported vocally but the entire G.O.P. in a period of unified rule.”

It failed to mention a weighty coincidence. This is the second time that a conservative senator from North Carolina is being called upon to save the nation from a president who fancies himself above the Constitution, above the law.

The first was the late Sen. Samuel J. Ervin Jr., a Democrat who chaired the Senate Select Committee that investigated the Richard Nixon administration for the Watergate burglary, the subsequent cover-up and other crimes. Nixon resigned in August 1974, after senators of his own party, notably Barry Goldwater, told him it was time to go.  

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Ervin retired from the Senate at the end of that year, covered in glory, and died in 1985. Burr holds the Ervin seat, the first of five successors to be re-elected.

Donald Trump’s obstruction of justice is even more obvious than Nixon’s attempts to cover up his campaign’s involvement in a burglary at the Democratic National Committee. Nixon fired a special prosecutor who was closing in on him. Trump has admitted that “this Russian thing” was on his mind when he decided to dismiss FBI Director James Comey. It was an astonishing confession of intent to impede — if not cancel — an investigation into a foreign government’s attempts to subvert our election for its own benefit.

Now, as in Watergate, our right to vote in fair elections is at stake. So is the constitutional principle that no one, not even a president, is above the law. Watergate began with a domestic political burglary. “This Russian thing” is even worse, as it involves a foreign power.

U.S. intelligence agencies are unanimous in the conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The questions are to what extent, if any, there was collusion with people in the Trump campaign, and if so, whether the culpability extends to the candidate himself. In firing Comey — and, in effect, warning the next FBI director off the case — Trump has attempted to obstruct justice even if nothing else turns up.

That issue falls more squarely under the jurisdiction of the Senate Judiciary Committee than under that of Burr, who isn’t a lawyer, but the Senate leadership apparently prefers to let the intelligence panel take charge. National security is certainly an issue, especially now that Trump reportedly gave the Russians a clue to an intelligence source that their murderous protégé, the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, most likely would want to silence.

One key difference is that Ervin was investigating a president of the opposition party whom he had not helped to elect. Now, Burr is being asked to probe a president of his own party, whom he did help to elect, and most of his fellow Republicans seem unable or unwilling to challenge their incompetent, reckless president.   

But Burr’s duty to the nation, and to posterity, is as clear and unavoidable as Ervin’s was.

At his inauguration in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes — also the winner of a bitterly disputed election — gave this advice to his own Republican Party and to the nation:

“He serves his party best who serves his country best.”

Barry Goldwater knew that. Does Burr?

(Martin A. Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times who now lives in Western North Carolina. Reach him at  

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