Leon Jaworski (1905-1982) was an independent prosecutor whose investigation into the Watergate affair eventually brought down the Nixon White House.
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.
Further Reading on Leon Jaworski
James Doyle, Not Above the Law: The Battles of Watergate Prosecutors Cox and Jaworski (New York: Morrow, 1977).