Leon Jaworski has returned to Texas to his $200,000-a-year law practice and his sprawling quarterhorse ranch. For 11 months he served as Watergate special prosecutor, picking up after Archibald Cox was fired by President Nixon. Jaworski resigned in October, saying he felt his job was done.
Born in Waco, son of an Evangelical and Reformed Church minister who emigrated from Poland, Jaworski, 69, worked his way through law school and became a courtroom lawyer known for his toughness. As an Army colonel, he was a member of the prosecution staff during postwar trials of Nazi war criminals. A friend of Lyndon Johnson, he was his first choice for Attorney General (although Johnson later nominated Ramsey Clark) and was elected president of the American Bar Association in 1971. PEOPLE Assistant Editor Clare Crawford talked with Jaworski in Houston about his job and its consequences.
Are there any parallels between prosecuting the Nazi war trials and what you’ve just done as special Watergate prosecutor?
There is a parallel in the sense that the German people were not bad people to begin with, but little sins will lead to bigger sins. They became callous to the evil that was going on, and I think in a sense this is what happened in Washington. It didn’t start with some of these shocking matters. It started with small deviations and then gradually grew into larger acts of wrongdoing.
When did you know that Richard Nixon had been involved in Watergate and was guilty?
I knew it in my own mind by late in December [of 1973]. There wasn’t anything I could do about it. A lot of it was grand jury testimony. And the things I got from the White House were confidential. I had to witness former President Nixon getting up before the American people and talking differently from what I knew the facts to be. It was very difficult to keep quiet. But I knew that there would be a day of reckoning.
Do you feel now with the trial that everything is coming to light?
Yes. I supervised the preparation of this trial, and I know what the facts are. I know what the tape recordings show. There isn’t very much more to be said or written.
Were you surprised by Nixon’s resignation?
I had been told that he would not resign by General Haig and others, and they repeated it over and over again. But I felt that once the recordings were turned over to us as a result of the Supreme Court decision, his situation would deteriorate. And that’s what did happen.
How do you personally feel about President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon?
This was something that I believed was within President Ford’s prerogative. He had the constitutional right to do it. Whether I agreed with what he did is beside the point. He didn’t second guess me while I was special prosecutor, and I’m not going to second guess him.
How did you learn about the pardon?
Phil Buchen called me on Sunday morning and told me that the President had made up his mind. I just said, “Well, thank you for letting me know.” I didn’t even wait to listen for the announcement. Jeannette and I went to church.
When plea bargaining came up, wasn’t it awful having to decide who would go to jail and who wouldn’t?
That’s right. But the American Bar Association has, after many years of work and study, come out with its views on plea bargaining, and we followed those very strictly.
What about [former Attorney General Richard] Kleindienst?
Kleindienst came forward very early in the game. During Archie Cox’s time as special prosecutor he came in and gave some information on his conversation with the President over not appealing the ITT antitrust suit. Kleindienst just wouldn’t go along with it. He opposed the President. I heard the tape recording myself, and the President used some very strong language, and told Kleindienst that he was going to fire Richard McLaren, chief of the Anti Trust Division, and told him not to go further with this case, that it was an order. Thereupon Kleindienst got a hold of John Mitchell and told him he was going to resign. Well, Mitchell went to the President and said we better go ahead and change this because we cannot afford to have a scene such as Kleindienst’s resignation. Now for a deputy attorney general to be opposing the President on a matter of that kind—and stand firm—I think is a very commendable thing. Later I was in touch with Archie Cox about what to do with Kleindienst, and Archie said, “Well I’m just thankful that I’m not the one that has to make the decision. The man deserves consideration. What I cannot tell you is how much consideration.” I came very close not to charging Kleindienst at all. [Ultimately Kleindienst was charged with a misdemeanor and allowed to plead guilty.]
What do you think of Richard Nixon as President?
As other Americans, I was tremendously disappointed. What I think disappointed me more than anything else was his inability to bring himself around to telling the truth. I believe that if Richard Nixon had told the American people what happened after the election he would have survived this matter. If he had said, “I just feel that I ought to level with you. This might have been made a political football and I don’t think it should have been, and it’s one reason that I didn’t talk about it before, but I just want to tell you exactly what happened,” I think there would have been a furor for a few weeks, and then I think it would have all blown over.
That’s what you would have advised Richard Nixon if you had been his attorney?
I think that he could have even done it before the election and survived it.
What was the most emotional decision you had to make?
One was the question of whether Nixon should be indicted. We can’t talk too much about that because there is a grand jury proceeding, but you know that the grand jury named him as an un-indicted co-conspirator. Well, you must know that they probably acted on my advice. This was something that had to be weighed carefully, but why was it done? The reason was that the House Judiciary Committee was about to begin its proceedings. And this was the proper forum to deal with a sitting President on a matter of this kind. The alternative would have been to go ahead and indict him and throw this country into a tremendous turmoil, not only domestically but internationally.
Looking back, what are some of the lasting effects of Watergate?
I think it’s going to be next to impossible to get anybody to violate the campaign contribution law. There was also a feeling that you had to make a large contribution in order to get a door open to you in Washington. That was wrong. And it is going to be more difficult to get the ear of officials in Washington to go along with certain things that might be subjected to criticism. I think everybody is going to watch his Ps and Qs very carefully for a long time. For the young people of the country—this is what I get from their letters—it was very important to know that there is no man who is going to be kept from answering for his misdeeds. From that standpoint, I believe it’s been a salutary experience.