Colonel of Truth

How my grandfather, Leon Jaworski, saved America.

November 2003By Comments

THIRTY YEARS AGO, ON NOVEMBER 1, 1973, my grandfather, the Houston lawyer Leon Jaworski, was appointed Watergate special prosecutor and given the task of investigating President Richard Nixon and his White House aides for possible criminal wrongdoing. At the time, public wrath over the Republican president’s shady and arrogant conduct threatened to metastasize into a full-blown constitutional crisis of a scale not seen since Reconstruction. My grandfather’s appointment was hardly viewed as the antidote—not by the national media, not by the Democratic party, and definitely not by the staff of young lawyers he had inherited following the sacking of his predecessor, Archibald Cox, by acting attorney general Robert Bork, under orders from the president. And yet a crisis was averted. Three decades after the conservative Texan and his liberal Northeastern subordinates forced Nixon’s resignation, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to reexamine my grandfather’s place in history. What I came to appreciate, through interviews with former assistant prosecutors and Nixon White House aides, is that heroes are made, not born. How Leon Jaworski acquitted himself historically during America’s fevered Watergate years of 1973 and 1974 is a complicated, not entirely pretty tale of warring egos, stubborn biases, and reluctant accommodations, all played out for the highest stakes. This, I suppose, is the stuff all mortal triumphs are made of.

None of his new employees wanted to meet him at the airport. To do so would be to confer legitimacy on the man, a tacit endorsement sure to be memorialized by the Washington press corps gathering at Dulles airport on the early afternoon of November 5, 1973. Though his new subordinates at the Watergate Special Prosecution Force knew precious little about the man, what they knew they did not like. A Texan. A former Lyndon Johnson crony. The head of a powerful corporate law firm. A former president of the ultra-establishment American Bar Association. An associate of former Texas governor and Nixon Treasury Secretary John Connally, whom they would later indict. The 1972 Texas chairman of Democrats for Nixon, a man whom they strongly suspected of a criminal conspiracy. And, of course, he had been handpicked by their nemeses, Bork and White House chief of staff Al Haig, to bring their good work to heel. Who could possibly consider this man, this Leon Jaworski, legitimate?

Even the deputy prosecutor, Henry Ruth, who was one of only two members of the 112-person staff to actually know Jaworski, did not want to greet him at the airport. Jaworski had been kind enough to call Ruth a few days before and ask him to stay on board. Ruth agreed to do so. But he, like the younger staffers, remained traumatized by the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20—in which Cox, their beloved boss, was abruptly fired by Bork after Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order—and deeply suspicious of the Nixon-approved successor. After all, Ruth remembered his previous association with Jaworski on President Johnson’s crime commission—remembered how Jaworski would excuse himself from meetings with a pointed “If you need me, I’ll be over at 1600.” Meaning, of course, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House. A man so fond of elite climes would be easy prey for Nixon’s strong-armers.

And so Ruth dispatched Jim Doyle, who promptly cried out, “Why do I have to be the guinea pig?” Doyle knew the answer: He was to be Jaworski’s press-relations man, and soon the special prosecutor would be mobbed by reporters. A former reporter himself, Doyle had formed his sour impression of Texas while covering the Kennedy assassination in 1963, a mere decade earlier. When he learned that Jaworski preferred to be called the Colonel—a throwback to his days as a prosecutor of Nazi war crimes following World War II—Doyle remarked acidly, “If he wants to open a chicken shack in the office basement, then I’ll call him Colonel.”

Doyle and his assistant, John Barker, drove to Dulles and peeled through the reporters waiting at the gate. Presently, Jaworski stepped into the terminal. He was slightly shorter than they had imagined, his cuff links of ordinary size, and he carried a single garment bag. To the surprise of Doyle and Barker, no one accompanied him—not a senior aide, not a junior lawyer, not a secretary. The new prosecutor lingered with the reporters for a few amiable minutes before following the two staffers to the government-issued car that would whisk him off to his new workplace. On the long ride from Dulles to the District, he asked Doyle and Barker some questions about themselves and jotted down their answers on a little notepad. For the most part, however, he was introspective, even somber. At one point, he turned to Barker and said, “I want you to know one thing. I’ve taken this job at the president’s request, but I’m nobody’s man.” In particular, he emphasized, he was not in John Connally’s pocket. Barker was not altogether convinced. But he did like the Texan, particularly when the car arrived at the Watergate Special Prosecution Force’s office at 1425 K Street and one of the reporters cluttering the entrance asked Jaworski if he intended to make any staff changes. Grinning, the new special prosecutor said, “I want to make one thing clear. These two guys,” and he indicated Doyle and Barker, “are gonna stay.”

No such jocularity awaited Jaworski on the eighth floor, where Ruth had convened the staff in the file room. The well-tanned lawyer in the crisp business suit greeted his troops with folksy pleasantries. They responded with sullen silence—staring at him, he said later, “like I was in a cage.” He was 68; their average age was 31. But the divide was not merely generational. Sixteen days earlier, in the wake of Cox’s dismissal for insisting upon subpoenaing recordings Nixon had made of his conversations in the Oval Office, this and every other room in the building had been sealed off by the FBI. “Nothing goes in, nothing goes out!” barked the agents, and they proved their point by stopping Doyle from exiting with a copy of the U.S. Constitution that he had taken off the wall. To the young staffers, it was a horror show. What kind of democracy permitted a president to shut down a prosecutor’s office? And now here stood Nixon’s designated stooge, with his white helmet of hair and his spit-shined shoes and his Confederate drawl: I’m looking forward to working with y’all . . . I’ve been assured of complete independence . . . I want us to conduct ourselves professionally—I don’t want to hear about any gossiping at cocktail parties . . .

It was the monologue, fumed one of his chief prosecutors, Richard Ben-Veniste, of a man who had been dispatched “to perpetrate the biggest fix of all time.”

EVERY FIVE YEARS, THE MEN and women who had just cause for doubting Leon Jaworski reunite in Washington to commemorate the Saturday Night Massacre. They are, for the most part, corporate lawyers now, pushing or exceeding sixty, their convictions tempered by parenthood and mortgage payments and the banalities of the workplace. But at these reunions, they still fawn over their aging mentor Cox (who, due to ill health, will not attend the party this November), and when they dim the lights and replay the videotape of Archie’s bold and bittersweet Alamo of a press conference on October 20, 1973, a collective reverie befalls the gathering. They are young again. Brave again. Uncompromising. Wondrous. And, alas, ever so perishable.

It is fitting that the man they insisted upon calling Leon when they knew he preferred to be called the Colonel died a year before these reunions began, in 1983. For his deputies got half of him exactly right. He was, indeed, a member of the Establishment, and compromise was to him an art, not an epithet. He believed in caution and deference. He revered God, the presidency, the rule of law, and his own gut instinct, though arguably not in that order. During the more recent reunions, some of the deputies have been heard to acknowledge that, come to think of it, Leon did possess a certain wisdom. Maybe even a certain rightness. Still: Never did he embody the ideals of the bow-tied, Socratically inclined Harvard law professor whom Nixon had so cravenly sacrificed. What Leon Jaworski personified was not idealism but rather its carrion-eating cousin, practicality.

Given that I regarded the Colonel as a national hero—and, more acutely, as my hero—I did not view his role in Watergate as that of a rain cloud drenching a morality parade. I was just shy of sixteen the night I returned home from a Halloween party and was promptly led into the den by my mother, who sat me down and quietly informed me that her father, my grandfather, had just accepted one of the most difficult jobs in America. From the following morning until almost exactly a year later, I began each day reading what strangers had to say about the man who had taught me how to throw a knuckleball, gut a catfish, and revere the courtroom. Not all of the words were kind. And when I saw him over Christmas of 1973—and later in March 1974, when my brother John and I spent our spring break living with him and our grandmother at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington—the Colonel, though unfailingly an exuberant grandfather, wore a mask of keen loneliness as his singular burden became weightier with each grim revelation.

“He succeeded in remaining mysterious to us absolutely to the end,” says one of my grandfather’s favorites among the young prosecutors, Carl Feldbaum. He and the others never saw the other side of Leon Jaworski. Their boss was an outsider, a Polish peon who had not been permitted membership to Houston’s poshest country club. He had proudly defended bootleggers and indigent blacks, and when he accepted then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy’s assignment to prosecute Mississippi governor Ross Barnett for barring a young black man from attending Ole Miss, clients left his firm in protest and letters appeared in his mailbox bearing messages such as, “I hope your daughter has a nigger baby.” He had forfeited his own youth for the sake of an early career and thus lived vicariously by gravitating to young people, among them his five shaggy-haired grandsons. A year before he left for Washington, he lost his eldest and favorite, eighteen-year-old Mike Moncrief, in a car accident. One of the Colonel’s big lawyer friends had once told Mike, “You ought to be an attorney someday, young man. Attorneys, you know, have a lot of power.” Mike replied that this was precisely why he did not wish to be a lawyer. The Colonel repeated this story with relish for years thereafter. It is likely that he heard Mike, and the echoes of his own alienation, in the bravado of his Watergate deputies. And that was the unseen side of Leon Jaworski that made all the difference.

ONE DAY IN 1998, CLINTON WHITE House aide Paul Begala telephoned me and asked what my fax number was. Within minutes, I was holding in my hands a speech given by the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, at a lawyers’ convention in San Antonio. In his speech, Starr spoke of his fellow Texan “Colonel Jaworski” as a kindred spirit and cloaked his investigation in the noble robes of Watergate. Begala’s gambit did not succeed in provoking me to write a Ken-Starr-You’re-No-Leon-Jaworski screed. But I did spend the rest of the afternoon pondering the differences between the two men and their work. Jaworski, after all, quit his $200,000-a-year law practice to work full-time on Watergate at a salary of $38,000. Starr kept his lucrative day job, which involved representing Republican clients hostile to Clinton. Jaworski’s office was so airtight that when a single news leak did occur, he ordered every staffer to sign an FBI affidavit. Starr’s staff, by contrast, served as a clearinghouse of anti-Clinton propaganda for the news media. While preparing a report to the House Judiciary Committee on Nixon’s conduct, Jaworski rejected the first three drafts his assistants submitted because, as he said, they were “full of accusations against Nixon. . . . We had to prepare one without any accusations. . . . Let them draw their own conclusions and their own deductions from what we were passing on to them.” The notorious Starr Report, with its bawdy descriptions of Clinton’s peccadilloes, exhibited no such self-restraint.

Thanks in part to the checkered performance of Starr, Iran-contra counsel Lawrence Walsh, and other recent government investigators, Jaworski and his staff are viewed today as the gold standard of prosecutorial fairness. In 1973 then-Texas Observer editor Molly Ivins penned a vicious cover story denouncing the Colonel’s appointment; a quarter century later, Ms. Ivins wrote admiringly of “Jaworski’s slow building of his case” and of his leakproof operations.

The stakes themselves remain incomparable. After all, in 1973 the issue was not whether a sitting president had lied about cheating on his wife but whether he had approved burglaries and spying operations on his political opponents, ordered that the burglars be plied with hush money, urged his aides to perjure themselves on the witness stand, directed that the CIA suppress an FBI investigation into the whole matter, and then lied for two full years about his involvement. Piercing this dense web of criminality presented awful challenges. How to compel a president of such arrogance and venality to vacate his post? How to achieve this with a minimum of trauma to the nation? And how to do it fairly?

Miraculously, history records that these imperatives were satisfied. But the unrecorded miracle is that all of this was accomplished by an unlikely alliance that began in the file room of 1425 K Street on November 5, 1973, when Archie Cox’s orphans and the solitary Texan saw every reason to give up on each other—but, for the country’s sake, did not.

THEY KEPT WAITING FOR HIM to bring in his Texas boys. But weeks passed and Jaworski had not imported so much as a secretary. And though the boss never called another general meeting after that initial disaster and eschewed Archie’s free-form philosophical discourse in favor of smaller and more businesslike discussions, the senior staffers could be seen emerging from Leon’s office with cautious smiles. Far from interfering with their work, he was exhorting them: Do it now. “Archie was a difficult act to follow, but there was always a naiveté about him,” says Richard Davis, who headed the Political Espionage Task Force. “Leon was more practical in deciding about indictments.”

But fairly. In contrast to the Whitewater staff’s gang-tackling of Monica Lewinsky, Jaworski did not waylay Nixon’s secretary when he learned that she had admitted responsibility for an eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in a crucial White House tape. Instead, he took the matter to U.S. district judge John Sirica, who conducted a hearing to ensure that no other tapes would be mishandled. To avoid any appearance of impropriety, Jaworski recused himself from the task force investigating former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally’s role in an illegal contributions scandal involving the dairy industry. (This infuriated some of Connally’s friends, who had nurtured hopes that the Colonel would shut down the investigation.) And for those Nixon aides who expressed contrition and provided cooperation, Jaworski continued Cox’s policy of offering plea agreements, beginning with Egil “Bud” Krogh, the young right-hand man to Nixon’s top domestic counsel, John Ehrlichman. During a long meeting, Jaworski suddenly turned the subject to his days as prosecutor of the Nazi war crimes trials. “He asked if I knew the name Albert Speer,” Krogh recalls. “He mentioned that while the gravity of Speer’s actions was vastly different from mine, there’s a principle at stake in both cases, which is that a person is responsible for his actions and can’t justify them by the orders he’s been given. Those who prosecuted Speer felt he made an honest effort to take responsibility for his actions.”

Jaworski had seen the same quality in Krogh. Not long after the former Nixon aide had completed his prison sentence, in 1974, my grandfather wrote a letter of recommendation urging that Bud Krogh be reinstated to the Washington State bar.

ON DECEMBER 12, 1973, SEVERAL ASSISTANT prosecutors huddled in Richard Ben-Veniste’s office to listen to the first of the White House tapes. And there was the president’s voice, as factual as death itself: “You could get a million dollars. . . . You could get it in cash. I, I know where it could be gotten. . . . Just be damned sure you say, ‘I don’t remember. I can’t recall.'”

They might have expected this to be a moment of jubilation. After all, a few of the younger prosecutors kept a tally board in which Watergate-related victories were chalked up either for “CC,” the Children’s Crusade, or for “WK,” the Wicked King. And yet, as Jill Wine-Banks (formerly Volner) would put it, the audible proof of Richard Nixon’s criminality “devastated your entire concept of the office. It was horrifying.”

And, they quickly agreed, it was something Leon needed to hear. Carl Feldbaum lugged the reel-to-reel machine into the boss’s office and dropped it on his desk. He sat across from his superior, studying his round, implacable face as the damning words were replayed. After the tape ran out, the older man took off his headphones and said to his associate, “Thank you.”

On his way back to his desk, Feldbaum was swarmed by his colleagues. Well? What did Leon say? “Nothing.” Come on! His face must have registered something. “Zero.”

But later that afternoon, Jaworski’s secretary, Florence Campbell, said to deputy Henry Ruth, “I’m worried about Mr. Jaworski. He’s been in his office all day with the door closed.”

Ruth knocked on his boss’s door. He found the prosecutor sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, staring at the floor. “Leon, what’s going on?” Ruth asked.

The drawl was dirgelike. “I can’t believe I just heard the president of the United States telling someone to say, ‘I don’t recall; I don’t remember,'” he murmured.

Ruth thought, This is a turning point. By the end of the day, everyone in the office knew it: Leon was radicalized.

“I’D SEEN SOME OF THE ABUSES of the Cox operation,” says Al Haig today. “With Leon, you’d get an honest shake. To me, you can’t ask for more than an honest, objective, patriotic prosecutor, and I think we were lucky to have one.”

But neither side felt that way at the time. The Watergate staff remained leery of Jaworski, especially when he would leave the office in mid-afternoon with a bulging briefcase and tell no one of his intentions. Sometimes a member of the prosecution force followed him—saw him disappear into his hotel or his firm’s Washington office or, perhaps, behind the White House gates. The imagination reeled, but imagination was all it was. The Colonel’s periodic meetings with Haig involved no secret deals. He left his own office to make calls and read documents because he craved uninterrupted moments and because he correctly guessed that his subordinates were parsing his every utterance. For that matter, he flew home to his ranch in Wimberley whenever he could. And there, in the womb of his family, he would at last let loose, grumbling about the hothead Ben-Veniste and Nixon’s lawyers—and then speaking in cryptic but malevolent tones of what the White House tapes revealed about the leader of the free world.

He wanted Nixon out of there. Not prosecuted as a sitting president, as some of the assistant prosecutors urged. Jaworski preferred the constitutional remedy of impeachment. Yet for Congress to impeach, it needed evidence, and the special prosecutor did not want to prejudice the imminent trials of Nixon’s top aides by releasing the dynamite he and his staff had been quietly sitting on for months or by broadcasting what he believed was on other tapes the White House still possessed. Throughout the spring of 1974, Jaworski and his young associates jousted. To treat Nixon as the caretaker of America’s most sacred institution? Or to treat him as subject to the laws like anyone else? The compromise they struck was as elegant as it was unprecedented: The Watergate grand jury, in a sealed report to Judge Sirica, would designate Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator and authorize Jaworski to name him as such whenever he deemed it necessary. What this meant was that the grand jury would not, as Jaworski put it, publicly “brand [Nixon] indelibly without an opportunity to defend himself.” But if and when Nixon’s lawyers refused to turn over the tapes for use in the Watergate cover-up trial on the grounds that the grand jury had not named Nixon as a conspirator, Jaworski could reveal his trump card.

And that is exactly what transpired, leading to a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court on July 8, 1974. Never strong on appellate matters, Jaworski had not wanted to be the one to argue the case, but its magnitude required that the special prosecutor be a participant. In the end, his thirty-year-old co-counsel, Philip Lacovara, smoothed over the boss’s uneven performance with a magnificent closing argument. On July 24, the high court ruled unanimously that Nixon must surrender the tapes. Twelve days later, the White House did so. The president acknowledged that what they revealed was “at variance with certain of my previous statements.” On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon quit his office.

Nixon’s resignation liberated the young Watergate prosecutors. Now they could pursue the ex-president as rigorously as they had prosecuted his lieutenants, unsaddled by constitutional issues. With the single exception of the brilliant Nashville trial lawyer James Neal—who was in his forties and not from a Northeastern liberal tradition—all of Jaworski’s assistants urged that Nixon be indicted. “But Leon took a broader view,” says Neal, “that I’m a citizen, and a citizen with a great deal of power, and I should use that power in a way that redounds to the ultimate good of the country.” Jaworski could not be shaken from his belief that the massive pretrial publicity would mean endless trial delays, and perhaps no fair trial ever. When he consulted his heart, he found pity there. Haig had informed him of Nixon’s “deteriorating health.” Said Senator James Eastland: “He’s in bad shape, Leon,” elaborating that Nixon had weepily begged, “Don’t let Jaworski put me in that trial with [Bob] Haldeman and Ehrlichman [former top Nixon aides]. I can’t take any more.” With the quarry dead in his sights, the Watergate special prosecutor put the voluminous case against Richard Nixon aside, pausing to consider the moment, the man, the country, his duties, and his conscience.

A day came in early September when Nixon’s new ace attorney, Herbert J. “Jack” Miller, met secretly with Jaworski in the restaurant of the Jefferson Hotel and asked the special prosecutor if he would challenge a presidential pardon or in any way attack it on the airwaves. Miller walked out of the Jefferson that afternoon with the definite sense, he now says, “that if a pardon were granted, Jaworski would consider that the prerogative of the president.” Thus was Nixon bestowed executive clemency by President Gerald Ford on September 8, 1974. The press release issued by Jim Doyle the following morning declared that “the special prosecutor will not discuss the subject of the pardon granted former president Nixon.”

Dismay rocked the office at 1425 K Street. “The blow delivered by the pardon was that it established the opposite point of no one being above the law,” says Lacovara, who resigned in protest. According to Ben-Veniste, “Some said, ‘There goes Leon. He’s done it. There’s the Deal.'” Forever thin-skinned, Jaworski could scarcely bear to face his staff. On September 19, he stepped out of his office to find a cake on his secretary’s desk and the staff gathered around it, singing “Happy Birthday.” The Colonel blushed, thanked them, and retreated to his office without taking a bite. On October 12, he submitted his letter of resignation to the attorney general.

The New York Times charged that my grandfather’s decision to leave the force while the trials were still in progress bordered on “desertion of duty.” Many of his staffers shared that view. Others recognized that their boss’s work was done and that he badly yearned to rejoin his former life. There would be, in any event, no going-away party, just as there had been no welcome wagon. And though the Colonel would later tell people that it had been a fond parting, replete with picture-taking and autograph-dispensing, the stone-cold reality is that the Watergate special prosecutor returned to his world in Texas, Archie Cox’s protégés to theirs, and their historic association came to a decisive end.

One day in October 1974, Jim Doyle and John Barker accompanied Leon Jaworski to Dulles airport, where the two staffers had first laid eyes on the new boss a year earlier. The air in the car was thick with poignancy—and yes, finally, with warmth. For the divide had been crossed, a monumental moment shared. And who could not be grateful for it? Barker had brought a bottle of wine and three glasses along for the occasion. They uncorked it in the car, passed it around, and remembered. When the plane arrived in Austin, the former Watergate special prosecutor stepped out into the terminal to greet his wife and then realized that he was not carrying his garment bag—that it must still be on the plane, trapped somewhere between his world and the world he had left behind.

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