February 01, 1999 12:00 PM

White House counsel Charles Ruff was at the Hebron, Maine, the day after the House of Representatives had voted to impeach his client, President Clinton. “Everyone was saying, ‘You must be having a bad day,’ ” recalls his daughter Christy Wagner, 30. But Ruff, anticipating seeing his day-old first grandchild, Samantha, thought otherwise. “No,” he replied politely, “I’m having a good day.”

Ruff appears to value his personal life more highly than his professional accomplishments, which are considerable. During a 30-year career as one of the most powerful and highly regarded lawyers in the nation’s capital, he has steadfastly shunned the limelight. Despite serving as the last Watergate special prosecutor, winning convictions of two members of Congress caught in a federal sting operation and prosecuting John Hinckley for trying to assassinate President Reagan, “he doesn’t ever talk about work,” says Christy. “He’s more interested in what we’re doing.”

Ruff, 59, gave the TV-watching public an artful demonstration of his advocacy skills when he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee back in December. After weeks of partisan grandstanding, Ruff’s sober presentation on behalf of the President lent the proceedings a dignity they had often lacked. He displayed, observes former White House special counsel Lanny Davis, the “cordial toughness [with which] he consistently defangs his adversaries.”

Though he failed to save Clinton from impeachment, Ruff may yet spare Clinton’s Presidency from mortal damage in the Senate trial. In his opening on Jan. 19, he attacked the House prosecutors’ case as “a witches’ brew of charges” resting on “shifting sand castles of speculation.”

“He’s an apostle of the position that decency and fairness will do well in almost any setting,” says Robert Sayler, a partner at Covington & Burling, the prestigious Washington, D.C, law firm where Ruff was a partner between 1982 and 1995. “I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him—not even lukewarm.”

Ruff has often won cases at the eleventh hour. In 1993 prosecutors were poised to charge Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) with violating wiretap laws by distributing the transcript of an illegally recorded cell phone call of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a political rival. Robb hired Ruff, who had been the U.S. attorney for D.C. in the early 1980s. Ruff persuaded the Justice Department to let Robb make a highly unusual second appearance before the grand jury. Robb avoided indictment and political ruin—and Ruff’s reputation as the consummate behind-the-scenes litigator was sealed. Ruff, says a former colleague, “is a fixer.”

Ironically, Clinton’s defender-in-chief was an assistant special Watergate prosecutor whose investigation helped bring down President Richard Nixon. After Nixon resigned, Ruff became the final Watergate prosecutor (at $20 an hour) in 1975. The assignment, he told PEOPLE in ’77, was a rare privilege—but a painful experience, particularly prosecuting his old boss John Mitchell. “It was sad,” he said, “to watch a former Attorney General being sent to jail.”

Ruff himself has not entirely avoided embarrassment. In 1993, Clinton decided against nominating him to be deputy attorney general after it was revealed he had failed to pay Social Security taxes for his once-weekly, 71-year-old cleaning woman. But the setback didn’t last long. Two years later, Ruff sold his law firm partnership for $711,000 and became the D.C. corporation counsel, the chief lawyer for the city of Washington.

Raised in New York City, the son of music publicists Margaret Carlson and the late Carl Ruff, he had long before proved his resilience. In 1963, just out of Columbia Law School and recently married to Susan Willis, his Swarthmore College sweetheart, he was teaching law in Liberia on a Ford Foundation grant when his legs were paralyzed by Guillain-Barré syndrome (says sister Carla Ruff, 50, a publishing consultant in San Francisco). But with Susan’s support, he forged ahead with career and family. (Christy is a high school Latin teacher in Hebron, Maine; his other daughter, Carin, 33, is completing her Ph.D. in medieval studies at the University of Toronto.) Despite his growing prominence, Ruff never missed Christy’s high school swim meets and bypassed the party circuit to spend Sundays at home in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, watching football on TV. Ruff has been known to dismiss his need for a wheelchair wryly. “Law,” he once said, “is a sedentary profession.”

Bruce Frankel

Glenn Garelik in Washington, D.C, and Matt Birkbeck in New York City

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