Leon Jaworski, like richard m. nixon, came from a poor, deeply religious background. In the watergate scandal, Jaworski's rise to national prominence almost seemed to parallel Nixon's descent. Watergate is the name given to the scandal that began with the bungled burglary in June 1972 of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C., by seven employees of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). A lifelong Democrat who twice voted for the Republican Nixon, Jaworski was responsible for bringing to light many damaging facts of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, ultimately leading to the only resignation ever by a U.S. president. When Nixon appointed him to the post of special prosecutor on the case November 1, 1973, Jaworski expected to find wrongdoing and possible criminal activity by Nixon's aides, but the possibility that the president was involved never occurred to him.
Jaworski was born in Waco, Texas, on September 19, 1905, to an Austrian mother and a Polish father. He was christened Leonidas, after a king of ancient Sparta who courageously gave his life for his beliefs. Jaworski's father, an evangelical minister, instilled in him from an early age a deep and abiding Christian faith and sense of duty. By the time he was fourteen, he was the champion debater at Waco High School. He graduated at age sixteen and enrolled in Baylor University. After one year of undergraduate work, he was admitted to the law school. He graduated at the top of his class in 1925, and became the youngest person ever admitted to the Texas bar.
In 1926 Jaworski obtained a master of laws degree from George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and then returned to Waco to practice. prohibition was at its height, and Jaworski began his career defending moonshiners and bootleggers. His flair in the courtroom developed early. In one capital murder case, he concealed a stiletto in his pocket. During the trial he whipped it out and tried to hand it to a
juror, exhorting the jury to kill the defendant immediately instead of sending him to the electric chair later. In 1931 he joined the Houston firm of Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman, and Bates. The firm, eventually known as Fulbright and Jaworski, grew to be one of the largest in the United States. It was the first in Houston to hire black and Jewish staff.
Jaworski enlisted in the Army in 1942, and was commissioned as a captain in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the legal branch of the Army. One of the first prosecutors of war crimes in Europe, Jaworski successfully brought action against a German civilian mob that stoned to death six U.S. airmen, and employees of a German sanatorium who participated in the "mercy killing" of over four hundred Poles and Russians. He was also in charge of the war crimes investigation of the Dachau concentration camp, which led to proceedings in which all forty defendants were convicted and thirty-six were sentenced to death.
The Colonel, as he became known after his Army stint, returned to Houston and quickly became enmeshed in representing bankers and big business. lyndon b. johnson became a client and friend. In 1960 Jaworski handled litigation that challenged Johnson's right to run simultaneously for the Senate and the vice presidency. The case was resolved in Johnson's favor a few days before his inauguration as vice president. In 1962 U.S. attorney general robert f. kennedy appointed Jaworski special prosecutor in a contempt case against Mississippi governor Ross Barnett. The segregationist Barnett had defied a federal order to admit the first black student, james meredith, to the University of Mississippi. It was a volatile time of highly unpopular, court-ordered desegregation in the South, and Jaworski endured some vicious criticism by colleagues, clients, and southerners for prosecuting the case. Following President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963, Jaworski worked with the warren commission, as the Commission investigated Kennedy's assassination, acting as liaison between Texas agencies and the federal government.
In October 1973 Watergate special prosecutor archibald cox was fired in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre when he tried to force Nixon into supplying tapes pursuant to a subpoena. In response to pressure from Cox, Nixon ordered Attorney General elliot richardson to fire Cox; Richardson refused because Cox and Congress
had received assurances that the special prosecutor would not be fired except for gross improprieties. Richardson resigned rather than fire Cox. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus also resigned after refusing to fire Cox. Nixon's order was finally carried out by Solicitor General robert bork. Jaworski accepted Cox's vacated position, on the condition that he would not be dismissed except for extraordinary impropriety and that he would have the right to take the president to court if necessary. His new office was in charge of collecting evidence, presenting it to the Watergate grand juries, and directing the prosecution in any trials resulting from grand jury indictments. His job was separate from, although in many respects parallel to, that of the House Judiciary Committee, which was conducting its own investigation.
Jaworski's integrity was never questioned, but his appointment was greeted with suspicion. Some felt he was too much in awe of the presidency to execute the job whatever the consequences. Almost immediately, however, he began showing his mettle. He soon learned of an eighteen-minute gap on a crucial tape that had been subpoenaed but had not yet been turned over to the special prosecutor's office. The White House wangled for a delay in informing federal judge John J. Sirica of the apparent erasure. Jaworski pushed forward, and Sirica ordered that all subpoenaed tapes be turned over within days. Shortly thereafter the tapes were submitted, and Jaworski and his staff listened in disbelief to one from March 21, 1973, in which the president and White House counsel John W. Dean III discussed blackmail, payment of hush money, and perjury in connection with the cover-up of Watergate.
As Jaworski and his staff sifted through evidence and presented it to the grand jury, Jaworski was forced to decide whether a sitting president could be indicted for offenses for which the grand jury had heard evidence. He concluded that the Supreme Court might well find such an action to be unconstitutional, that the nation would suffer great trauma in the interim, and that the impeachment inquiry by the House of Representatives was the appropriate forum for determining whether Nixon should be removed from office. Carefully wielding a prosecutor's influence with the grand jury, he convinced the jurors to name Nixon as an unindicted coconspirator. This information was not to be made public until the trial of the grand jury's other indictees. At Jaworski's prompting, and with Judge Sirica's approval, evidence heard by the grand jury regarding Nixon's involvement was forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee and was kept from the public until later.
In the spring of 1974, Jaworski subpoenaed sixty-four more tapes. The White House sought to quash the subpoena, and made a desperate attempt to curry public support by releasing edited transcripts of some tapes. The White House claimed that as unsettling as the transcripts were, they contained no evidence of crime, and that they represented all the relevant tapes possessed by the White House. The prosecutors found many important omissions from the transcripts. Moreover, the White House claimed that a key tape from June 23, 1972 (six days after the Watergate break-in) was unaccountably missing. When Judge Sirica ordered the White House to turn over the subpoenaed tapes, it immediately appealed to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Jaworski then had to decide whether to attempt to bypass the court of appeals and ask the Supreme Court to review Sirica's order. A special rule permitted such a bypass in cases that required immediate settlement in matters of "imperative public importance." Jaworski's decision would be crucial because it was unclear whether the Supreme Court would bypass the court of appeals, something it had done only twice since the end of world war ii. If the Supreme Court refused to accept the case, trials against defendants already indicted would be delayed and momentum in the investigation would be lost. Jaworski decided to seek review in the Supreme Court.
Jaworski's gambit paid off. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On July 24, 1974, it ruled 8–0, with Justice william h. rehnquist abstaining, that the special prosecutor had the right and the power to sue the president, and that the president must comply with the subpoena. Within days of the ruling, the tapes started trickling in to the special prosecutor's office, including one of a conversation between President Nixon and H. R. Haldeman on June 23, 1972. This tape became known as the smoking gun, because it proved decisively that the president not only knew of the Watergate cover-up but also participated in it, only six days after the break-in. This was contrary to earlier assertions that President Nixon first learned of the cover-up in March 1973.
On July 27, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed a first article of impeachment, charging that President Nixon had obstructed justice in attempting to cover up Watergate. Within days the Judiciary Committee passed two more articles of impeachment, charging abuse of presidential powers and defiance of subpoenas. The committee's action, in conjunction with Jaworski's win in the Supreme Court and a concomitant public release of the tapes, finally left Nixon facing almost certain impeachment. On August 9, 1974, he resigned from the presidency.
Nixon's resignation did not end the matter for the special prosecutor. Most of Jaworski's staff pushed hard for an indictment of the former president. Public sentiment seemed to favor indictment. Jaworski studied the issue, but he considered the problem of getting the president a fair trial to be paramount and almost insurmountable.
"One of the things that the next generation will learn from Watergate is that the President is subject to the laws he is sworn to administer. His powers are not absolute."
On September 9, 1974, President gerald r. ford pardoned Nixon of all possible federal crimes he may have committed while serving as president. The special prosecutor's office then examined whether the pardon could be attacked in court, on the ground that it preceded any indictment or conviction. Jaworski concluded that Ford was acting within his constitutional powers in granting the pardon. He declined to precipitate a court challenge by indicting Nixon after the pardon, as some called for him to do.
Jaworski resigned as special prosecutor on October 25, 1974. Watergate prosecutions continued for some time thereafter under a new special prosecutor.
In 1977 Jaworski reluctantly agreed to serve as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee's investigation to determine whether members of the House had indirectly or directly accepted anything of value from the government of the Republic of Korea. The investigation, known as Koreagate or the Tongsun Park investigation, potentially involved hundreds of members of Congress and their families and associates, and charges of bribery and influence peddling sought by way of envelopes stuffed with $100 bills. Tongsun Park was a central figure in the Korean lobbying scandal, but exactly who he was remains unclear. U.S.-educated, at times he may have posed as a South Korean ambassador and may have been employed by the Korean CIA or been an agent of the Korean government. He was found trying to enter the United States with a list containing the names of dozens of members of Congress including information regarding contributions. Jaworski's work was thwarted by difficulties getting key Korean figures to testify under oath, as well as the difficulties inherent when a body investigates itself. Jaworski was disappointed with the fruits of his labor. Only two former members of Congress faced criminal charges, two private citizens were indicted and convicted, and three members of Congress were reprimanded.
Jaworski died of a heart attack at his beloved Circle J Ranch, near Wimberly, Texas, on December 9, 1982, while chopping wood, a favorite pastime. Married for fifty-one years, he had three children and five grandsons.
Jaworski, Leon. 1981. Crossroads. Elgin, Ill.: Cook.
——. 1979. Confession and Avoidance. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press.
——. 1976. The Right and the Power. New York: Reader's Digest Press.
Woodward, Bob, and Carl Bernstein. 1976. The Final Days. New York: Simon & Schuster.
When in November 1973 the Nixon administration appointed Leon Jaworski special prosecutor in the Watergate case, many suspected that he was a Nixon crony, bent on obstructing the legal issues in the case and absolving the Nixon administration of wrong-doing. Nixon had already fired the previous Watergate special prosecutor, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox, precisely because of his insistence on pursuit of the truth in the case no matter which administration officials— including the president—were hurt. Jaworski seemed comfortable with those whose political conduct may have left them vulnerable. He successfully defended Lyndon Johnson against vote-rigging charges following the congressional elections of 1948; won another electoral case for Johnson in 1960; and was associated by many with fellow Texan John Connally, whose close ties to Nixon were well known. Yet Jaworski kept Cox's staff, continued his investigation of corruption in the Nixon administration, and subpoenaed the White House for Watergate tapes and documents— evidence that ultimately brought down the Nixon presidency. Leon Jaworski was every bit as high-minded and unbiased in pursuing the truth as had been Cox.
Background and Career
Like Cox, Jaworski was an achiever whose hard work and intelligence brought him wealth and influence. Son of a Polish father and Austrian mother who immigrated to Waco, Texas, Jaworski grew up poor but earned a reputation as an outstanding student. He graduated from high school at fifteen and went on to Baylor University, where he supplemented his scholarship by correcting papers for seventeen cents an hour. At sixteen he was admitted to the Baylor University Law School; at eighteen he graduated first in his class and became the youngest person admitted to the Texas bar in 1924. Jaworski returned to Waco and began his law career representing bootleggers and moonshiners. He lost a sensational case against a black client accused of murdering a white couple in 1929, but at a time when lynching was still common in Texas, Jaworski's defense gained him statewide attention and a position with the Houston firm of Fulbright, Cooker, Freeman and Bates. By age twenty-nine he was a full partner and the confidant of some of Texas's most powerful and influential businessmen. Jaworski served as a colonel in the army during World War II and henceforth would be nicknamed "Colonel" by friends and subordinates. After the war he became chief of the war crimes trial section of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, later recounting his experiences prosecuting Nazi criminals in a memoir, Fifteen Years After (1961). Returning to the United States, he renewed his law practice in Houston, becoming a senior partner in the Fulbright firm in 1946.
During the 1950s and 1960s Jaworski extended his contacts among Texan business and political interests, becoming a close associate of Lyndon Johnson and an influential figure in the Democratic party. From 1962 to 1965 he worked for Archibald Cox and Robert Kennedy, pressing contempt charges against Mississippi governor Ross Barnett for his failure to comply with school desegregation orders. Later he served on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of John Kennedy, and on President Johnson's crime and violence commissions. By the 1970s Jaworski had also built his law firm into largest in the country. It was famous for its egalitarianism—his was the first law firm in the Houston area to hire Jews, blacks, and women. From July 1971 to July 1972 Jaworski served as president of the American Bar Association, notable, given his future role, for his concern over "errant lawyers," who possessed "vanishing respect for law."
Especially after the firing of Cox, Jaworski understood the politically tenuous nature of his job as special prosecutor. His position required that he collect evidence in the Watergate case, present it to grand juries, and prosecute wrongdoing, but not appear partisan or vindictive. Jaworski's judicious temperament and patient amassing of evidence insulated him from any partisan charges. To demonstrate his independence from the White House which appointed him, Jaworski retained Cox's staff of lawyers and broadened the scope of their investigations to include not only events connected to the Watergate break-in and cover-up but also illegal contributions to the Nixon reelection campaign. Ultimately, like Cox, Jaworski found himself at odds with the Nixon administration over the Watergate tapes, which Jaworski sought to review for evidence but which Nixon refused to surrender. As had Cox, Jaworski rejected the Nixon administration's claims to "executive privilege" and compromise proposals wherein the White House provided transcripts of the tapes instead of the tapes themselves. In the spring of 1974 he subpoenaed the administration for sixty-four tapes, but the White House refused to comply. Jaworski took his case to the Supreme Court. On 24 July 1974 the Supreme Court ruled, eight to zero, that Nixon must turn over the tapes, including the famous 23 June 1972 "smoking gun" tape, which proved that Nixon personally ordered his subordinates to obstruct justice. Sixteen days later Nixon became the first president in American history to resign the office.
Jaworski had not taken the job as special prosecutor in order to bring down Nixon. On the contrary, he consistently operated with deference to and respect for the president, suggesting, for example, a compromise regarding the delivery of Watergate tapes, which Nixon rejected. He also refused to expand his powers beyond their limits, failing, while Nixon was still a sitting president, to indict Nixon for obstruction of justice, because he believed it to be beyond his power. Jaworski believed that it was a constitutional requirement that Congress prosecute the president. With Nixon's resignation, that dilemma was lifted, and Jaworski moved to prosecute Nixon as he had his fellow Watergate conspirators. President Ford's pardon of Nixon ended his efforts. On 25 October 1974 Jaworski returned to Houston. Under the third special Watergate prosecutor, Henry S. Ruth, Jr., White House officials John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman, and Robert Mardian were found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Judge John Sirica sentenced Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman to two and a half to eight years in prison; Mardian was sentenced to ten months to three years. Twenty-seven corporate executives and lawyers were found guilty of campaign violations, but only three received prison sentences. Jaworski had not taken an active role in thes prosecutions. His importance was symbolic: stepping into the role of special prosecutor after its independence had been called into question, Jaworski proved that the special-prosecutor's office could be both impartial and rigorous—setting the stage for more extensive investigations by special prosecutors in the future.
James Doyle, Not Above the Law: The Battles of Watergate Prosecutors Cox and Jaworski (New York: Morrow, 1977). □