Remembering Leon Jaworski

September 1, 2005 by  
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© Clifford Crouch, 2005

This summer’s revelation of the identity of “Deep Throat” – perhaps the most notorious anonymous source in American history – has made the 1970s Watergate affair into headline news once again in 2005. The unmasking of furtive FBI official Mark Felt (in the July 2005 issue of Vanity Fair) as the long-elusive journalistic informant has forcefully reminded Americans of an extraordinary national scandal that led to years of political and legal battles, imprisoned or disgraced more than a score of men, and brought down a U.S. president. Even many of the people charged with righting the bitterly divisive situation came to be viewed by the public as opportunists with their own self-serving agendas, whether private or partisan. Among the few figures to emerge with his honor and reputation intact was longtime Houston attorney Leon Jaworski, who was born 100 years ago this month.

While future generations may remember him best as the special prosecutor of the Watergate scandal, Jaworski led a remarkable life almost from its start on Sept. 19, 1905 in Waco. As the first native-born (American and Texan) son of an Austrian mother and a Polish father, Jaworski was the product of a wave of German-speaking immigrants who settled in central Texas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He would later recall studying by the light of a kerosene lamp and riding in a horse-drawn buggy alongside his father, an evangelical pastor, through the streets of such small towns as Geronimo, Seguin and New Braunfels.

Bright and doggedly ambitious, he graduated from high school in three years at age 15, earned a law degree from Baylor University, and was admitted to the state bar at the age of 19. He learned something about prejudice by virtue of being a German-speaking American boy during World War I, and had an additional chance to observe its effects when the Ku Klux Klan became a significant political force throughout America for a few years during the 1920s. Nonetheless, once he obtained a master’s degree from George Washington University and settled down in Waco to practice law, his legal specialty seems to have been not civil rights, but trial work defending Prohibition-era moonshiners and bootleggers.

What drew the young Jaworski to Houston from the security of a successful practice and the company of family and friends? As may be true for many of the readers of this magazine, for him the city seems to have represented a greater sphere for the full exercise of still-untapped talents and relentless ambition.

“Something about Houston nagged me,” he later wrote.

“All I could see was a big unknown. And yet, something beckoned in that unknown, a glimmer of a larger vista of opportunities and new challenges … a frontier town sparked by the go-getting wildcatters and pioneering oilmen who had succeeded the old land, cattle, and cotton barons.”

He moved to Houston in 1929 (only weeks before the Great Depression began), married his hometown sweetheart Jeannette Adam, and spent much of the subsequent decade raising a family and often working, in his words, from “the dark of early morning [to] late in the evening, having never seen the sun all day.” In 1931, he joined the firm that would eventually be called Fulbright &Jaworski, now the 25th largest law firm in the nation. Among his clients was the independent oilman Glenn McCarthy, today remembered as the model for the fictional character Jett Rink (portrayed by James Dean) in the Hollywood film “Giant.”

Feeling the call of duty after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jaworski enlisted in the Army a few months later, joining the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the legal branch of the service, as a captain. He began his military service by prosecuting U.S. servicemen accused of crimes against civilians and fellow soldiers. In 1943, he prosecuted German prisoners of war, being held in a POW camp in Arkansas, who had murdered one of their own “for failing to observe the Nazi code.” Finally, as the Allies began to liberate Europe, Jaworski was sent overseas to prosecute war criminals: first, a lynch mob of German civilians who had murdered six captured U.S. aviators in the town of Russelsheim; then, the staff of a medical sanatorium in Hadamar – a supposed hospital that had initially euthanized mental patients and later become, over the course of the war, an extermination site for hundreds of Russian and Polish slave laborers; and finally, 40 guards, officers and doctors in charge of the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. He was discharged with the rank of colonel in October 1945. Returning to civilian life, Jaworski turned down a proffered appointment to the Texas Supreme Court, choosing instead to re-establish his career as a top trial lawyer in Houston. In the 1950s he won a multimillion-dollar settlement in a lawsuit involving the Galveston-based Moody family’s business empire. (He also acquired, in true Lone Star tradition, a ranch outside Wimberley in central Texas – not far from the rural scenes of his childhood days – which he promptly named the Circle J.) By 1960, his clients included then Sen. Lyndon Johnson. In 1962, at the behest of the Kennedy administration, he was involved in prosecuting Gov. Ross Barnett for criminal contempt after the segregationist politician openly and repeatedly defied federal court orders mandating the admission of a black student to the University of Mississippi – acts that had contributed to an extremely violent riot in the town of Oxford, during which two men were killed. Jaworski, who viewed himself as a “Southern moderate” on matters of race, took the assignment despite widespread criticism, later calling the event “the gravest conflict between federal and state authority since the Civil War.” In 1971, he was elected president of the American Bar Association.

It may have been Jaworski’s reputation as a supposed “establishment” lawyer and conservative Southern Democrat that led White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig to seek him out as a replacement after President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” of Oct. 20, 1973. Ironically, however, where the younger, left-leaning Professor Cox had proceeded like an academic stickler, the 68-year-old Jaworski proceeded like the tough Texas trial lawyer he still was.

Jaworski later wrote that he had accepted the position believing the president to be innocent of criminal wrongdoing. However, it was Jaworski’s deft maneuvering that led a grand jury to name Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a sealed report, thus encouraging the pursuit of the Watergate case both in court and in Congressional impeachment hearings.

And it was Jaworski who, in a gamble, sought successfully to bypass lower courts and appeal directly to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Nixon. (He also, incidentally, scandalized his staff by threatening to wear cowboy boots to that highly formal proceeding.) The court’s unanimous decision on July 24, 1974 – that Nixon was required to surrender subpoenaed tape recordings of White House conversations involving the Watergate cover-up – marked a crucial step in bringing the scandal-ridden presidency to its conclusion the following month.

An independent thinker until the end, the longtime Democrat would later endorse fellow Houstonian George H.W. Bush in his campaign for the presidency in 1979. When Bush received the Republican vice-presidential nomination instead, Jaworski supported the Reagan-Bush ticket in the 1980 election. He died of a heart attack while working in a field of his Wimberley ranch on Dec. 9, 1982, and is buried in Houston’s Memorial Oaks Cemetery.

Ironically, although his book of Watergate recollections “The Right and the Power” (1976) was a national bestseller for months, Jaworski’s personality comes through far more clearly in two lesser-known memoirs: “Confession and Avoidance” (1979), which highlights his professional career; and “Crossroads” (1981), which vividly reveals his small-town Texas upbringing, his personal crises and the Christian faith that sustained and guided him throughout his life. In a kind of valedictory essay, written for The New York Times only a few years before his death, Jaworski concluded:

The greatest reward that can come to a lawyer is not measured by wealth or social position or popularity. It lies in the inner satisfaction that comes with the faithful discharge of duty. H

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