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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.