A QUARTER CENTURY AGO the word “impeachment” called to mind a different presidential Pinocchio. Richard Nixon, claiming executive privilege, steadfastly refused to turn over certain White House audiotapes to Watergate investigators. He was thwarted, however, by the special prosecutor, a man of his own choosing. Leon Jaworski was a storied Houston lawyer who had tried Nazi war criminals and represented the likes of Lyndon Baines Johnson and John Connally. But Jaworski wasn’t offering Nixon good-ol’-boy treatment; though a conservative himself, he was morally offended by the president’s evasions and lies, and his legal victory reassured Americans that no one is above the law.
He was born Leonidas Jaworski on September 19, 1905, in Waco. His father was Polish-born, his mother a native of Austria. He spoke mostly German until he started school.
At age fifteen he enrolled at Baylor University and a year later at its law school; at nineteen he became the youngest lawyer in the history of Texas.
He moved to Houston in 1929 and soon joined Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, and Bates. He stayed on for fifty years, handling high-profile antitrust, banking, and energy cases. The firm became Fulbright and Jaworski in 1974.
At age 36 he joined the Army, rising to the rank of colonel. After World War II ended, Jaworski oversaw the prosecution of hundreds of war criminals, including Nazi officers from the Dachau concentration camp.
In 1960 Jaworski successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court that LBJ had the right to run simultaneously for the vice presidency and his Senate seat. In 1962 U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy appointed him to prosecute Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi for fighting the desegregation of the University of Mississippi.
In October 1973, as the nation reeled from the revelations of Watergate, the White House persuaded Jaworski to take over as special prosecutor. First he legally safeguarded himself against being fired—the fate of his predecessor, Archibald Cox. Then, to Nixon’s dismay, Jaworski followed Cox’s lead and pressed the president to surrender the disputed audiotapes. In a unanimous ruling in July 1974, the Supreme Court agreed. Two weeks later, on August 9, Nixon resigned.
Jaworski reentered the national spotlight in 1977 to investigate “Koreagate,” an attempt by powerful Koreans to buy congressional votes. He died in 1982 while cutting firewood on his Wimberley ranch.