James St. Clair is home—surrounded by his warm and loving family, enjoying the sun on the broad back porch of his cottage on Cape Cod. He is glad to be there. His job as Richard Nixon’s counsel of last resort was a traumatic experience, though he’s not giving out many details. All specifics, he insists, are shrouded by the lawyer-client relationship. No, he will not say how often, if ever, he listened to the President’s tapes, nor what he thinks of Ron Ziegler. (He will volunteer that he found Alexander Haig “most cooperative,” a “marvelous man.”) Most emphatically he will not say what he thinks of his client as a person, as a strategist, as a fellow lawyer, or as a President. But surprisingly, St. Clair is not sorry he took the job. “Knowing what I now know, I would”—he stops to think it over—”probably say yes again.”
The ordeal had its compensations. The Supreme Court accepted his basic argument—that Presidents could sometimes decline to answer subpoenas. And St. Clair is personally convinced that President Nixon’s resignation was, among other things, a distinct setback for Teddy Kennedy. The thought pleases him. The Kennedy forces, he is certain, wanted to have Richard Nixon to kick around in 1976.
James St. Clair, 54, is a short, plump, very smart and very proper Bostonian. He is not “The Silver Fox,” the inappropriate nickname given him by envious colleagues; his sharp eyes and prominent front teeth suggest, instead, a dignified Bugs Bunny. He got involved with Richard Nixon on the day after Christmas 1973, when the family vacation in Tarpon Springs, Fla. was interrupted by a phone call from General Haig. St. Clair still can’t say why he took the thanklessjob, but for a man who may be the country’s top trial lawyer, it was surely an irresistible challenge. The shock came later. In Washington he found himself maneuvering in areas for which his experience had not prepared him. The press in Boston, for example, revered him as if he were the Old North Church. In Washington he was flayed severely and often.
Once, 20 years before, he had been an assistant to attorney Joseph Welch in the army-McCarthy hearings. That, by comparison, had been enjoyable. “What was difficult to accept,” he now says of his service for Nixon, “was the intensity of reaction. Every little thing was covered as if it were of great consequence, giving it a dimension that is hard to describe. I felt I had to fight; if I didn’t I’d have to pack up and leave.” St. Clair’s counteroffensive included releases, interviews and TV talk shows—usually considered just more “Nixon PR” by a wary press corps.
When St. Clair finally learned the contents of the three tapes that revealed Nixon’s role in the Watergate coverup, he gave the President an ultimatum, it is widely assumed, saying he would quit if they weren’t released. They were, and the uproar precipitated President Nixon’s resignation. Yet even after Gerald Ford assumed the presidency, St. Clair and fellow-counsel J. Fred Buzhardt continued to work on Nixon’s behalf. They announced their conclusion that all tapes, including those yet unpublished, were Richard Nixon’s private property. The controversial finding was St. Clair’s last official act as presidential counsel.
Now, in the waning days of summer, St. Clair rests in his cottage. It is unobtrusively grand, befitting a Bostonian who makes an estimated $200,000 a year. (His White House salary was a meager $42,500.) The cottage is of gray weathered shingles, with a gold-leafed fish-shaped weather vane on the roof. The porch looks out across their own marshland to the sea, where the family’s golden retriever, Brandy, wanders through scrub pines picking up ticks. St. Clair plays golf with his son Scott and his wife Billie, takes naps and has dinner with friends, while trying to watch his diet. Sometimes he broods about the performance of the media. He hopes they’ll give President Ford a chance, but he suspects that with Nixon gone they’ll soon be desperate for new “circulation-builders,” as he calls public figures. “They’ll have to find someway to keep the tension up,” he says dourly, “they can’t afford to let things calm down.”
Still, for him, it looks like a good year ahead. In Boston St. Clair is a hero, though he has said nothing except that he is glad to be home. He is known as the man who forced the exposure of the last tapes. The family will soon move back into their handsome clapboard house in Wellesley. With season tickets to the New England Patriots games, they’ll attend en masse this fall and enjoy pregame tailgate picnics in the stadium parking lot. “Thank goodness,” says his wife Billie. “He’s just plain Jimmy St. Clair again.”
But is he? Would he plunge back into the maelstrom to defend citizen Richard Nixon? He offers his tight lawyer’s smile. “I haven’t,” says James St. Clair, “been asked.”