Colonel of Truth

How my grandfather, Leon Jaworski, saved America.

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

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