Cox: It's time for another Leon Jaworski
The late Houstonian's role in Watergate is a model for special counsel Mueller
as posted in the Houston Chronicle on May 20, 2017
Famed Houston attorney and Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski was a frequent visitor to his Circle J Ranch in Wimberley - located just across the highway from where my wife and I currently reside. His modest 300-acre Hill Country ranch along Lone Man Creek reflected this hard-working, conscientious man. The sturdy main house, a guest house and a small office were clustered in the live oak and cedar trees that covered the surrounding hills. In the 1970s when I was the Wimberley View newspaper editor, I visited with Jaworski at his ranch and occasionally saw him at King Feed, our local hardware and feed store.
On one occasion, I wangled an interview with Jaworski at the Circle J. Dressed in khakis and work boots, Jaworksi had been cutting down cedar trees using his chainsaw, one of his favorite pastimes. Covered with dust and woodchips, he greeted me with a hearty handshake and a friendly welcome. He appeared no different from other ranchers in the area - except that he was internationally admired as a result of his role as special prosecutor in the Watergate investigation. As one of my friends at the feed store told me, "You better listen to what he has to say - he told the president of the United States what to do."
Reflecting on history
Leon Jaworksi became special prosecutor at a critical time in our nation's history, one we recall as another uncommon White House administration takes shape. While under investigation by Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, President Richard Nixon abruptly fired Cox in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre" on Oct. 20, 1973. A few weeks later, Jaworski took on the job amid much concern and doubt about his ability to pursue the probe. For the next year, Jaworski would doggedly pursue the investigation of President Nixon, also amid much criticism and opposition from the administration. The Watergate investigation, court rulings and impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives led to Nixon's resignation on Aug, 8, 1974. Many of his aides were indicted and convicted for their role in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices and subsequent coverup.
Most historians agree that Richard Nixon was one of the most tormented, obsessed and enigmatic presidents in our history. Supporters and detractors also concur that the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation were the result of his paranoia and the win-at-all-costs attitude that contributed to the abuse of power and obstruction of justice while serving as president. History may have been far different had Jaworski decided that he would prefer to stay at home in Texas instead of becoming special prosecutor.
And history will be an important guide for our nation again, as former FBI Director Robert Mueller assumes the role of special counsel for the investigation of ties between President Donald Trump's election campaign and Russian officials. What lessons can Jaworski provide?
'Mistaken' about Nixon
Many Americans are extremely worried about the state of our nation and the conduct of the president and key officials in his administration - and it's more than the 2016 election. Questions abound about Russian connections with Trump administration officials - indeed, it's hard to resist making the "Saturday Night Massacre" comparison regarding Trump's abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey. So, too, are questions rife about conflicts of interest concerning his family and members of the Trump administration. We are witnessing continuous demonstrations of Trump's erratic conduct and his apparent inability to be honest. The resulting chaos delivers a dangerous blow to the presidency, as well as to domestic and international affairs and our standing as the leading democratic nation in the world.
As a historian, I try to put these issues in proper perspective and consider the context of these events. Jaworski provides inspiration and direction. When he became special prosecutor, the Texan said that he never thought the president of the United States would be involved in criminal activities and obstruction of justice. In his book, "The Right and the Power," he writes that he initially thought Nixon would be a good president. "I was mistaken," Jaworski wrote. "He became petty and arrogant, determined to use the powers of his office as he pleased - whether right or wrong." As his investigation proceeded, Jaworski recalled that he grew more dismayed. "I would hear the President throw falsehood after falsehood at the American people." In spite of the public turmoil, he continued his investigation while Nixon remained defiant.
After listening to one recorded conversation between President Nixon and his aide, Chuck Colson, Jaworski was amazed at what he heard, writing, "'Sleazy' was the first word that came to mind as I listened. They talked of revenge against their enemies. The President's voice was full of contempt for certain Congressmen and their close friends simply because they had shown a lack of enthusiasm for one policy or another. It sounded like two chap ward-heelers talking in the rear room of a neighborhood dive." Jaworski's account of his year as special prosecutor provided many colorful yet meaningful commentaries of presidential misconduct that resonate today.
He had it right
Jaworski demonstrated through meticulous research and evidence that Nixon had indeed intended to subvert the law and obstruct justice. These facts, which included the damaging While House tapes that became part of the record, proved to be Nixon's undoing, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion. "From Watergate we learned what generations before us have known: our Constitution works," Jaworski concluded.
In the final analysis and as decreed by the U.S. Supreme Court - no president is above the law.
Jaworski had it right - and history has judged his meritorious and patriotic service.The history of the Watergate scandal is very relevant today. As did Jaworski, Mueller must be prepared for a long battle, public criticism and stonewalling from the Trump administration. He should be afforded a broader, totally independent appointment and the resources to investigate all other possible illegal acts and obstruction of justice beyond the 2016 election. There will assuredly be significant surprises, and his resolve and fortitude will be tested. And Mueller should not be afraid to pursue the truth no matter who is involved - from the president on down.
That is exactly what Leon Jaworski would do if he were alive today.
Cox, Ph.D, is an award-winning author and historian who resides in Wimberley.