Edward Bennett Williams (1920-1988) was one of the best known and most successful trial lawyers in Washington in his day. Well connected politically, he had access to every president from John Kennedy through Ronald Reagan. A sports fan, Williams was part owner of the Washington Redskins football team and the Baltimore Orioles baseball club.
As a defense attorney, Williams represented some of the most colorful and controversial figures of the mid to late twentieth century. His clients included singer Frank Sinatra, fugitive financier Robert Vesco, Soviet spy Igor Melekh, Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, reputed Mafioso Frank Costello, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the Reverend Sun-Young Moon, founder of the Unification Church. According to biographer Evan Thomas, author of The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams—Legendary Trial Lawyer, Ultimate Insider, Williams wasn't content to be just a great lawyer: "He wanted power, and he wanted to be seen as a force for larger ends than the narrow representation of his clients. He was, at least in the beginning, an effective crusader for individual freedom."
Quick Rise as Lawyer
The only child of Joseph Barnard Williams, a department store detective, and Mary Bennett Williams, a homemaker, he was born in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 31, 1920. Shortly after the beginning of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Joseph Williams's father lost his job and was often out of work during the lean years that followed. To help the family make ends meet, young Williams worked after school. A good student at Bulkeley High School in Hartford, he won an academic scholarship to Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he distinguished himself as a first-rate debater. In 1941, he graduated from Holy Cross summa cum laude.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, thrusting the United States into World War II, Williams joined the U.S. Army Air Forces but was discharged after sustaining a back injury in training. After his brief stint in the military, Williams began studying for his law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1944 and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar in 1945. That same year he joined the prestigious Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson. On May 3, 1946, Williams married Dorothy Adair Guider, with whom he had three children.
By the end of the 1940s Williams left Hogan and Hartson to open his own law office. He specialized in cases dealing with civil liberties and first came to prominence in the early 1950s when he represented U.S. Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin in censure proceedings. A number of McCarthy's fellow senators had charged him with abusing his power as chairman of a subcommittee investigating Communist Party infiltration into the federal government and military. Williams skillfully negotiated an agreement with senators to dismiss the censure charge and substitute for it a much milder punishment. However, the deal fell apart when McCarthy suggested in a speech that those senators arrayed against him were "unwitting handmaidens" of the Communist Party.
Tangled with Buckley
Years later, conservative commentator William F. Buckley, publisher of the National Review, recalled his stormy relationship with Williams over the years. In the summer of 1954, Buckley was first approached by the attorney, who pleaded for his help in clearing the name of McCarthy, a man he characterized as "a great and important American," Buckley recalled. The publisher recommended that Williams seek the assistance of L. Brent Bozell, Buckley's brother-in-law, in his defense of McCarthy. But Bozell had written the McCarthy speech that sabotaged the deal negotiated by Williams. Buckley's next encounter with Williams came when the Washington attorney agreed to defend Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York on charges of income tax evasion that were first brought to light in an expose by Buckley. The relationship between Buckley and Williams deteriorated even further when the National Review panned One Man's Freedom, a book by Williams about civil liberties. Not long after, Williams, in a speech at Yale, referred to Buckley as "an Ivy League George Rockwell." Buckley threatened to sue for libel, and Williams eventually retracted the statement. In the end, although their politics put them poles apart, an uneasy truce was struck between Williams and Buckley.
Although his defense of McCarthy first brought Williams to national attention, he was equally comfortable representing the Communists and fellow travelers that the senator from Wisconsin was trying to track down. As biographer Thomas observed, "Williams would defend anyone, he liked to say, as long as the client gave him total control of the case and paid up front. He would represent Mafia dons and pornographers for enormous fees. He would also represent priests, judges, and attractive women in distress for little or nothing." After his defense of McCarthy, Williams was called a fascist by those who abhorred the Wisconsin senator and his witch-hunt. At the same time, others branded him a Communist sympathizer because of his representation of several people accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Williams's willingness to represent almost anyone brought him criticism throughout his career. His own views were expressed in One Man's Freedom, published in 1992. In it, he wrote: "The lawyer is neither expected nor qualified to make a moral judgement on the person seeking his help."
Williams suffered a personal tragedy in 1959 when his wife, Dorothy, died. In June 1960 he married Agnes Anne Neill. The couple had four children.
In the early 1960s, Williams took on another notorious client, Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Indicted on charges that he had taken kickbacks from a Detroit trucking company, Hoffa escaped conviction because the jury deadlocked. However, the Justice Department, led by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was not through with Hoffa, who eventually was sent to prison in 1967. Williams felt strongly that the strategy the government employed against Hoffa was fundamentally unfair.
Another of his more notorious clients was Frank Costello, alleged by the government to be a key figure in organized crime. Costello, facing charges of tax evasion and possible deportation, reportedly was reluctant to retain Williams because of the attorney's defense of McCarthy. Costello was convicted of tax evasion but with the help of Williams managed to avoid deportation.
An attorney of uncommon skill, Williams was most at home in the courtroom, where he won his greatest victories. He also was fascinated by the political intrigues of Washington and forged strong alliances with many of the most influential politicians in the nation's capital. Although he was a lifelong Democrat, Williams counseled Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1974 he was elected national treasurer of the Democratic Party, a post he held until 1977. So highly regarded was Williams that in the early 1970s General Alexander Haig, a close adviser to Richard Nixon, urged the president to retain Williams to provide legal advice during the Watergate affair. Nixon, however, rejected Haig's suggestion, mostly because Williams was a Democrat. Williams had been closely identified with the Kennedy family and the Washington Post, two of Nixon's biggest enemies.
In 1967, Williams abandoned the solo practice he had opened in 1949 and founded the law firm of Williams and Connolly. In the years that followed, the firm was widely recognized as one of the most successful criminal law practices in the country. Many prominent Republicans hired him. For John Connally, secretary of the Treasury under Nixon, Williams won an acquittal on charges of bribery in connection with the approval of federal price supports for milk production. Williams also represented former CIA Director Richard Helms, accused of lying to a congressional committee.
"Back on the Front Page"
It was Williams' representation of Connally that put the attorney "back on the front page," according to biographer Evan Thomas. When Connally ran afoul of the law in the mid-1970s, it had been nearly 15 years—since Williams had kept Powell out of jail in 1960—that Williams had taken a high-profile case. Williams jumped at the opportunity to defend Connally. His handling of the case, according to Thomas, provided a "how-to guide for the defense of politicians accused of corruption."
According to Thomas's account, Williams celebrated his win in the Connally case by getting drunk at the post-trial victory party, held in the Watergate apartment of Robert Strauss, chairman of the Democratic Party. President Gerald Ford called to congratulate Williams, and so did Richard Nixon. "I wish you were my lawyer," Nixon told Williams, according to Thomas. "It's too bad you represent the Post." The disgraced former president, then living in exile on the West Coast, invited Williams to come visit him in San Clemente. A few weeks later Williams said that if he had been Nixon's lawyer during the Watergate scandal, he would have urged the president to burn the Oval Office tapes on the White House lawn.
Outside the courtroom, one of Williams's greatest passions was sports. He was part owner of both the Washington Redskins football franchise and the Baltimore Orioles baseball club. Williams was overjoyed in 1983 when both teams captured the ultimate prize in their respective sports, the Redskins winning in the Super Bowl and the Orioles taking the World Series.
Williams died at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington on August 13, 1988, after a lengthy battle with colon cancer. Buckley wrote in National Review: "He was larger than life, always something of a mystery to his associates. He worked every day, including Sundays, and yet he was simultaneously everywhere, owner of athletic teams, hotels, counselor to the mighty, Democratic official with less than jerky-left positions (an improvement over his book). A year ago I had a call. Would I telephone the president and urge him to name Ed Williams as head of the CIA to succeed Bill Casey? I was able to do so with enthusiasm: but was told that Ed was sick. We had been hearing this for years, except this time, he died. We mourn the death of a big man, all-American."
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Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2: 1986-1990, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
National Review, September 16, 1988.
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