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Dash, Samuel

Dash, Samuel

(b. 27 February 1925 in Camden, New Jersey; d. 29 May 2004 in Washington, D.C.), owlish Philadelphia district attorney who went on to national fame for his Inherit the Wind–style interrogations of powerful political figures in the Watergate investigation.

Dash was born in suburban Philadelphia, the second of six children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father was Joseph Dash, an electronics parts specialist for the Frankford Arsenal who had condensed the family name from Dashefski so that it sounded more American; his mother was Ida (Weinberg) Dash. Raised in west Philadelphia, Dash sold newspapers on the street and carried numbers sheets to gamblers in Market Street taverns to help support his family.

“I thought they were baseball scorecards,” Dash told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a 1991 interview in which he said his childhood dream was to become a lawyer so that he might demonstrate achievement. “I was a nobody as a kid. I came from a family of nobodies. We didn’t count,” Dash said.

He ran for student president at Philadelphia’s Central High School on a platform urging coed dances with nearby Philadelphia High School for Girls. The campaign resonated with the electorate and he won. The Central High School yearbook later called Dash most likely to be the best politician.

In 1943 he joined the Army Air Forces as a second lieutenant and served until 1946, mostly as a bombardier navigator on B-24 bombers. He took a leave in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and while strolling the famed boardwalk in uniform he encountered Sara Goldhirsh. They had met while students at Mayer Sulzberger Middle School in Philadelphia when they were leads in the school play, Thank You, Doctor. They rekindled their acquaintance in Atlantic City and were married 14 July 1946. The couple had two daughters.

In 1947 Dash earned a BS from Temple University in Philadelphia, and in 1950 he earned his JD, cum laude, from Harvard University. At Harvard he demonstrated the outgoing, proactive application of legal principles that would be a hallmark of his career by founding the Harvard Voluntary Defenders, a group of law students who worked pro bono for indigent defendants.

After graduation Dash was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice as a trial lawyer in the appellate section of the Criminal Division. He worked there two years before going to work for the Philadelphia district attorney Richardson Dilworth as chief of appeals. In 1954 Dash was named district attorney when Dilworth entered a successful race to become Philadelphia’s mayor. Dash, then twenty-nine years old, was the youngest big-city district attorney in the nation and showed no reluctance to confront the city’s entrenched power structure. In one sensational case he prosecuted and won conviction of a prominent socialite accused of aiding in the death of her daughter as the result of an abortion. In another episode he was widely criticized by police for telling the Pennsylvania Supreme Court he could not oppose clemency for the convicted cop killer Theodore Elliott because the state had erred in its psychological diagnosis by not considering Elliott insane.

Newspaper editorials harshly derided him for his stance, but Dash was unbowed. “The law itself must be just and decent,” Dash replied to his critics in a letter to the editor. When Dilworth left the mayor’s office in 1956, Dash became a criminal defense attorney. In 1958 he founded the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to elevate the tarnished image of attorneys. In 1959, addressing the growing use of wiretaps by law-enforcement agencies, he coauthored with Richard F. Schwartz and Robert E. Knowlton the book The Eavesdroppers, which was one of the first general works to outline the accelerating spread of electronic surveillance.

In 1973 Dash, then a forty-seven-year-old law professor at the Institute of Criminal Law and Procedure at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., accepted the invitation of Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, to become chief counsel for the Senate committee investigating the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. The job paid $34,000 a year and thrust Dash into the national spotlight. Tall, thin, balding, and with thick-framed glasses ever perched on his nose, Dash became one of the scandal’s electrifying stars with his riveting, unflinching interrogations, broadcast live on television to a rapt national audience.

Dash said he organized the Senate probe with television in mind, allowing the story to unfold chronologically like a detective story. “The most important thing I had to do was convey the information to the public in a way they could understand,” he said. The story progressed slowly with dramatic flourishes over the summer of 1973. Dash insisted the hearings demonstrate to the public how political campaigns worked, dirty tricks and all. By the time such witnesses as the White House counsel John Dean took the stand, the nation was thoroughly riveted. Dash’s performance was also watched closely at the White House. President Richard Nixon told aides that he would never meet with Dash.

In one of the most pivotal and dramatic moments in the Select Committee on Watergate’s hearings, Dash grilled the White House aide Alexander Butterfield about who knew of a secret taping system in the Oval Office of the White House. “The president,” Butterfield replied reluctantly. It was Dash’s investigators who had discovered the secret White House taping system, and the transcripts of inner sanctum conversations ultimately eroded remaining support for President Nixon and pressured him to resign. Dash wanted more. He thought Nixon should have been impeached. In his book Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin CommitteeThe Untold Story of Watergate, Dash explained that the special prosecutor Leon Jaworski had “no stomach for a trial of Nixon.” When the White House tapes were released in 1997, Dash said they proved that Nixon was “on top of everything” and was personally involved in illegal activities before the Watergate break-in. “Nixon believed he was a sovereign who had the authority to act above the law, a president who brought us close to dictatorship,” Dash wrote.

After Watergate, Dash returned to teaching at Georgetown University and helped Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger develop the American Bar Association’s ethical standards for prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers. In 1977 Dash went back to Philadelphia on special assignment: to investigate for Pennsylvania’s attorney general the demise of the city’s special prosecutor’s office. In a withering report, Dash concluded the city had “surrendered to corruption.”

In 1985 Dash went to South Africa and became the first American to visit and interview Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, at Pollsmoor Prison. “Throughout our meeting, I felt that I was in the presence not of a guerrilla fighter or radical ideologue, but of a head of state,” Dash wrote in a column for the New York Times. During the 1970s and 1980s Dash also assisted in human-rights cases in Northern Ireland, Chile, and Australia.

In 1994 Dash was again called to government service, this time as ethics adviser to the Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who was investigating past business arrangements of President Bill Clinton. But Dash resigned abruptly four years later, criticizing Starr for publicly advocating that President Clinton be impeached. Dash had helped draft the independent counsel law that Congress passed after Watergate to ensure impartial investigations of the executive branch. “As a prosecutor, your job is to seek justice, not just to convict,” Dash said. In the wake of the resignation, Starr said of Dash: “I respect him. I admire him. He’s a total man of principle.”

Though a lifelong Democrat, Dash had established a career reputation for independence and as a passionate advocate for legal ethics. He continued to teach at Georgetown University in his final years and remained a watchdog of civil rights. Asked in a 2003 interview what he felt was the greatest threat to contemporary society, Dash snapped back, “The Patriot Act.” Dash said he felt that unfettering restrictions on eavesdropping and sealing public records in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks were a dire threat to American privacy rights. His final book was a discussion of the Fourth Amendment titled The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft. The book was released posthumously only weeks after he died of heart failure at age seventy-nine at Washington Hospital Center. He is buried in Parklawn Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.

Among Dash’s most important books are Chief Counsel: Inside the Ervin CommitteeThe Untold Story of Watergate (1976) and The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft (2004). Obituaries are in the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, and Washington Post (all 30 May 2004).

Mark Washburn

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