Leon Jaworski; muffin-soft and Texas-tough

A few years ago, Leon Jaworski was being honored by the Houston Rotary Club when, quite unexpectedly, Lyndon Johnson showed up. The then-retired President had gotten wind of the occasion and decided to drop in

"Much to my surprise," Mr. Jaworski says, "he got up there and made a talk, made a beautiful talk. The kind of thing a man makes for a friend.Now, just think of this man coming all the way over from Johnson City! I didn't expect him to be there."

He should have had every reason to expect the former President to honor him. After all, Mr. Jaworski had defended him several times in court; the two had developed a mutual admiration; and LBJ was forever sending over copies of his book, photographs, anything that would serve as a suitable medium for a heartfelt inscription.

Lyndon Johnson was not the only well-known American to recognize Leon Jaworski as a friend and gifted colleague. The walls of his office -- in the Houston headquarters of Fulbright & Jaworski -- tell you the fellow has walked among the mighty and left his mark.

Pictures of him with the Washington powerful mingle with photos dating from his tenure as Watergate special prosecutor and an impressive Washington Post pen-and-ink drawing of him arguing before the Supreme Court for Richard Nixon's Oval Office tape recordings.

Scattered among these pictures are plaques and awards marking a career that includes the defense of a black Texas sharecopper in the '30s, the Nuremberg war trials after World War II, the investigation of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the prosecution of Watergate, and the Koreagate inquiry. His career climaxed in a Supreme Court contest with then-President Richard M. Nixon. (A recent survey of the nation's lawyers rated this case as the third most important event in the court's history -- right behind an early contest involving James Madison and the Warren court's overturning of police procedures.)

It was a test, he feels, that was precipitated by the American people. "i would never have been the Watergate prosecutor," he recalls, "had it not been for the uprising on the part of the American people in making their voice heard in opposition to what Nixon did [when he] not only fired [Mr. Jaworski's predecessor] Archibald Cox, but made it clear he was not going to appoint another prosecutor. He was just going to kick it back into the Department of Justice and let that thing gradually peter out."

The refusal of American citizens to put up with the "Saturday Night MAssacre" (as the mass firing that included Mr. Cox was dubbed by the press) propelled Mr. Jaworski into Watergate and several months of intense legal warfare.

He is a well-dressed man, silver-haired and suntanned. His artfully tailored suit creases obediently in all the right places. Square glasses set off large, relfective eyes and a country-boy-grown-wiser countenance that seems to belie the image of a high-powered lawyer. It is a visage that once prompted him to write, "I was born with a muffin face."

In fact, Mr. Jaworski does exhibit a sort of muffinlike softness and ingenuous charm. His ample, almost sentimental features expand into a Texas-size smile at the slightest provocation. And his steady manner and courtly hospitality blend easily with the coziness of his soft-toned office like butter melting on hominy grits.

But that's as far as homespun homilies go with the Texas- lawyer-turned-national-figure. As many opponents have found, Mr. Jaworski has an adamant, nail-hard interior and a dogged determination in legal contests that have earned him his reputation as one of the law's toughest, most unbending practitioners. This Texas-tough inner core showed up most dramatically during the Watergate confrontations with Richard Nixon.

"When I went up there," he says, recalling his installment as Watergate prosecutor, "I thought he had been victimized by his staff. I thought he had a staff that had done things on their own. That they had not let their chief know that they were participating in these cheap doings. I thought they had been doing this on their own primarily, nd that Nixon was not aware of it. I thought he should have been aware of it, but that's a far different question from active participation in it, you know.

"What happened is, when I heard this tape recording where he was schooling [ chief of staff H. R.] Haldeman on how to lie, when I got to that part of it -- boy! I'll tell you! -- was it a new ball game as far as I was concerned! I just shuddered at the thought of what this was going to lead to."

While there may have been doubt in Mr. Jaworski's mind about the path that Watergate would take, few of his close friends doubted how well he himself would make out. His career up until that moment provided an encouraging prelude to this legal assignment.

Graduating in 1925 from Baylor University at the age of 19, he went on to study law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He returned to Texas only a year later, law degree in hand, with a youthful appearance that, he says, "did not favor me."

Nevertheless, something must have favored him, because as a very young man, about 42, he was offered a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, and his climb to prominence and respect among his colleagues has steadily continued ever since.

Although he will not discuss the matter for the record, it is reported that Lyndon Johnson wanted him to fill a seat on the United States Supreme Court. But Mr. Jaworski had already made it abundantly clear to the President that he had "never really been interested in sitting on the bench."

What has always interested him is the conflict of trial.In his recent book, "Confession and Avoidance," he laments the disappearance of advocacy and craftsmanship among trial lawyers. Sitting in his office, he points out that "you don't see the great cross-examinations you used to. Lawsuits today are not nearly as dramatic."

Mr. Jaworski himself has resorted to high drama, once whipping out a stiletto during his summation in a murder trial and handing it to a quavering juror with the warning that a death sentence would be tantamount to plunging it into the defendant.

Did Watergate require any such courtroom dramatics?

"No, not at all. The important element in Watergate was the careful preparation that was made. The method of laying brick on top of brick had a lot to do with the way Watergate was unraveled. When we began to close in on certain individuals . . . And they began to tumble one by one, then . . . things began to deteriorate in the White House very fast.

"If we hadn't been successful -- a first in history -- in getting that grand jury report [which showed exactly what Nixon had been doing] into the hands of the House Judiciary Committee, by litigating it . . . well, they were sitting there absolutely bogged down.

"Then, here comes this pincer movement," Mr. Jaworski recalls, describing the effect of this legal squeeze play. "The House Judiciary Committee, armed with the evidence we had supplied them, and me coming after him for more evidence . . . I knew it would be absolutely ruinous to him if I should get it. And he knew it, too. That's why he was bucking me."

He covers with Watergate ground with some familiarity these days, after countless speeches and interviews, but the telling still carries the urgency and sense of history it always did, like the war stories told around the cracker barrel in rural Texas where he grew up.

Although he was actually born in Waco, Texas, when that city had a population of only 60,000 his mother became ill after his birth, and the family moved on a physician's advice to a small central Texas community with a better climate and quieter surroundings.

"I was about as rural as I could be," he says softly. "If there ever was a country boy, I filled the bill."

There's still something of the country boy in Leon Jaworski. He and his family live on a ranch near Kerrville, Texas, in what has got to be some of the most beautiful country in North America. The ranch fulfilled a lifetime dream, and Mr. Jaworski has spent years and lots of money making it into the kind of gracious homestead that he has always wanted.

He carries the legend and map of his state, like many Texans, imprinted in his sould. "The best-tasting peaches in the world come from the hill country around Johnson City," he maintains. And he complains good-naturedly that "Texans have traditionally been looked upon as somewhat backward."

Mr. Jaworski is far from backward, but he has no pretentions of being steeped in literary culture. The only two novels he has read cover to cover are "Gone With the Wind" and "Dr. Zhivago." He took "Dr. Zhivago" with him on a trip to Hawaii and "just stayed with it. Captivated by it. Just loved it. There was history in it. It absorbed me." But otherwise, he is bored by the "meaningless detail" of novels.

He is a Texas conservative in many matters concerning the law, and an outspoken admirer of US Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's court for its celebrated "rollbacks" of decisions made under Earl Warren -- decisions that Mr. Jaworski feels had gone too far.

"Where I had some problems with the Warren court was their overworking of the due-process clause ['nor shall any State deprive any person of life, libery, or property, without due process of law'] of the 14th Amendment. Every time they ran across something they didn't like, they ruled that it conflicted with the 14 th Amendment. In the end, I think there was an imbalance created between the rights of society and the rights of the criminal."

What about the Burger court's controversial decisions allowing newsrooms to be searched, reporters' minds to be probed for malice, and the press to be excluded from certain trials?

"Not a single one of them has been harmful," he snaps back with conviction. "Except for the last one. That one bothers me. But I have a feeling the Supreme Court will clarify it."

Is it possible that, had the Burger court rules been in effect during Watergate, he would have moved to have Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein jailed for not disclosing the identity of their source, "Deep Throat," just as a New York Times reporter was jailed last year for refusing to turn over notes in a murder case?

"They didn't have that much. Nothing specific that could have any bearing on the charges we were bringing," he shrugs, leaving the legal question untouched.

He agrees with the court's recent decision not to intervene in the case of a three-time offender in Texas, who had committed crimes amounting to less than $1 ,000 and was serving life imprisonment under Texas law (the defense had argued that life imprisonment for such minor crimes constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment").

"I think what the court was doing was leaving Texas law alone, which is what they should do. The place that should be corrected is in Texas. I don't believe a man sould be confined for life because he has written some bad checks. I have to take issue with that. But I can see where the court felt this was up to the state to correct."

Mr. Jaworski himself has been criticized for two major decisions in his career: his not indicting Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation and his agreeing to play a part in the Koreagate investigation.

In answer to the first criticism, he argues that "there was no time to [bring Nixon to trial]. We would have run such a severe risk, not only of disturbing our entire case, but of gooing along a rabbit path that would have been unsuccessful, if I had tried to indict him. Because we didn't even know if he was indictable. And the worst part of it is, if we had gone along that trail, we would have spent a lot of time in court and in litigating that question and would have missed the timing which was so important to this thing.

"The only time that he could have been indicted was after he had resigned, and he was no longer a sitting President, and I didn't have the same problems. There was no longer the question of impeachment process in progress. But I couldn't move with that until the cover-up jury that was then being selected was actually sequestered, because they would have called for a postponement of that trial, which we had already postponed as long as we could.

"He would have been indicted without question. But then the pardon came along."

Criticism over his joining the Koreagate investigation mounted as the affair ground along, giving many the impression that probing wrongdoing had been far less zealous when it involved Congress than when the White House was concerned during Watergate.

In his own defense, Mr. Jaworski says that his Koreagate role was sharply defined, that he had nowhere near the sweeping powers of the Watergate prosecutor. "In Koreagate, my sole function was one of investigator. I had no authority to prosecute, I had not even the right to indicate my idea of what disposition should be made. None of that was there. I have criticized the way they do things there, openly and publicly."

After the Koreagate inquiry, he recommended a noncongressional permanent commission of "patriots" who would serve without pay to investigate corruption . . . and that Congress not investigate itself. He doesn't, however, think there is widespread corruption in government, although "there is more than there should be, and the little there is bringing about a lack of faith among the American people in public officials. A dangerous thing. It's a cynicism."

The great-granddaddy of faith-destroyers in today's American government was, of course, Watergate. But Mr. Jaworski says it was not so much dirty tricks that turned the country off, but something more basic to the human character: People do not like to be lied to.

"I think Richard Nixon could have admitted what he had done and apologized for it, asking for forgiveness, and he would have gotten away with it," he says. "But what the American people most detested about Nixon was his repeated lying. That's what they detested."

He also carries another lesson with him from those days that leaves him more sanguine about the future of the country and its government: the outpouring of public outrage after the Saturday Night Massacre that ledt to his hiring.

"It was the avalanche of calls and letters that came to the White House and to members of Congress that changed Nixon's mind [about trying to kill the investigation]. I don't have to guess at that; I know, because [former White House chief of staff and Nixon adviser Gen. Alexander] Haig told me. He told me it was just unbelievable to them that so many people could just stand up and say they would not stand for it. He said it was something resembling a revolt."

And that revolt makes him think there is the kind of resolve in the American people to meet the worst crises: "That's why I believe the American people can do anything they make up their mind to do," he says with a sense of satisfied confidence.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.




Save for later


Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items