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Charles Ruff Takes Historical Pleasure in Announcing 'the Watergate Prosecution Rests'

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They were the good guys of the Watergate scandal—the government lawyers who brought down a President and sent his highest aides to prison. Of the four men to hold the office of U.S. Special Prosecutor, the present one, Charles Ruff, may be the least remembered—he weathered no massacres, made few headlines, had no stonewalls left to break down. But Ruff still has one job left that assures him a place in history. This week, a few days after the fifth anniversary of the Watergate burglary (June 17, 1972), Ruff will leave the Special Prosecutor’s HQ for the last time. Locking the door behind him, he will quietly put the office out of business.

“The pure lawyer work—the trials, the papers, the briefs—will not be matched again,” says Ruff, who followed Archibald Cox, Leon Jaworski and Henry Ruth into the job. “We weren’t perfect. We lost some cases we should have won, but I think without question this office had the highest level of lawyering of any prosecutor’s office I know about.”

Ruff, 38, joined the staff in 1973 and took over for the departing Ruth two years later. “There was never a question of saying no,” he says, recalling such historic showdowns as the 1974 Supreme Court decision on access to presidential tapes in U.S. versus Nixon. “No prosecutor ever gets a chance to be close to that kind of an issue more than once in his life.”

At the same time, he admits, the job was often painful—as last month when he faced his old boss John Mitchell in court: “I worked for him at Justice and I’d always found him to be straight with me. It was sad to watch a former Attorney General being sent to jail.” No less trying was the decision on whether to charge Gerald Ford with campaign expense violations. Ruff’s office cleared the President. “There were a lot of sleepless nights,” he remembers. “Coming out of that with our sense of professional responsibility intact was probably my greatest personal satisfaction.”

Ruff has faced great challenge before. When he was barely out of Columbia Law and married for only one year (he met wife Susan at Swarthmore), a mysterious virus paralyzed his legs. He and Susan were in Liberia on a Ford Foundation project and, he recalls, “by the time I got back to the States whatever little things had floated around in my blood were no longer there, so no one ever figured out what it was. I got through only because of Sue,” he adds. “She was incredibly supportive.”

His handicap slowed him not at all. Besides his work at Justice, he has taught at several law schools and served as acting chief inspector of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Ruff’s next post is expected to be inspector-general of HEW—a role perhaps closer to his self-description as “confirmed bureaucrat” than the Special Prosecutor’s job.

He has nothing but admiration for the men who preceded him as prosecutor, but disagrees with Jaworski’s contention that Nixon could never have received a fair trial. “There is no question he could have gotten one,” Ruff says. “The question is when. The judge might have had to go through a lot of jurors. It would have taken time.”

Like other Watergate lawyers, Ruff is disappointed over losing the milk-price support case against John Connally (“When you lose you feel godawful”) and winning only minimal sentences for infractions of campaign-financing laws. But he takes peculiar satisfaction in his role as a footnote to Watergate. “I couldn’t pass up the chance,” he says with a smile, “to be a trivia question 20 years from now when they ask: ‘Who was the last Special Prosecutor?’ ”