The Man Who Would Impeach the President

In the seven months he has served as chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, John Doar has lived up to his reputation as a real life John Wayne-Gary Cooper character.

Walking softly and carrying a black looseleaf notebook labeled “Draft Articles of Impeachment,” the rangy, blue-eyed 52-year-old attorney strode quietly into the center of the Watergate drama as the man chiefly responsible for organizing the committee’s historic investigation of the President.

Though he has underplayed his own role, like a frontier marshal facing an awful test, he has been independent, relentless, tough, and fair—and willing to take a stand in a confrontation in which Wayne or Cooper would be saying, “A man has gotta do what he’s gotta do.”

Chosen for the Judiciary counsel job by committee chairman Peter Rodino, a Democrat, Doar, nominally a Republican, had been at pains to avoid the appearance of becoming a relentless prosecuting attorney stalking a rare trophy—an impeached President. “To me,” Doar said when he took the job, “success is seeing that justice is done.”

When it came time to summarize the evidence for the committee, though, Doar could not restrain himself any longer. In his peroration, the committee’s counsel observed that President Nixon had committed an “enormous crime,” the “terrible deed of subverting the Constitution.”

Until that point, Doar had been so scrupulously even-handed in his presentation, that he had lulled a few committee members to sleep in the course of organizing and presenting 7,200 pages of evidence and documents. His objectivity had earned praise from such unlikely admirers as James St. Clair, Nixon’s embattled lawyer, and Gen. Alexander Haig, the President’s chief of staff. However, Doar’s flatly pro-impeachment summation spurred press secretary Ron Ziegler to accuse Doar of running a “kangaroo court,” and inspired presidential counsel Dean Burch to label Doar “a hired gun.” That hostility could cause even more controversy if the House votes to impeach the President; Doar is a likely choice as legal advisor to the Congressman who would be chosen by the Democratic leadership to serve as prosecutor in the Senate trial.

Until he brought in his final bill of particulars, with its massive summary of the evidence, John Doar had maintained a notable public reticence. He avoided interviews about his performance in his $36,000-a-year job, sticking to his slow-but-sure routine, exhibiting his feeling only at one point, when he denounced the White House transcript of the Watergate tapes as “inadequate and unsatisfactory.” Since he left his private practice in 1959, Doar had become a kind of one-man traveling bridge over troubled waters—mediating, fact-finding and trouble-shooting successively as a Justice Department lawyer, president of the always-turbulent New York City school board and director of a controversial self-help program in a black community in Brooklyn.

John Doar grew up in a relatively tranquil setting, the small Wisconsin town of New Richmond (population 3,707), where he showed early signs that a lack of self-confidence would not be one of his problems. When he was about 8 years old, he came home one day from school talking excitedly about basketball. His father, a lawyer, asked him if he was a good player, and he answered, “I’m the best guard I’ve ever seen.”

Doar did in fact grow to be 6’2″, and he played basketball at Princeton, which he entered in 1941. After a two-year stint in the Army, he was graduated in 1946. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of California in 1949, then returned to New Richmond to join the family law firm, Doar and Knowles.

The general practice of law in the small town occupied Doar for 10 years. Then, seeking a wider scope for his talents, he accepted a job in the Justice Department during the latter years of the Eisenhower administration. The appointment left Doar with a “Republican” label that remained when his name was proposed for the Judiciary Committee job last year by many of the legal experts Rodino contacted. But Doar calls himself an independent, and he was sufficiently apolitical to survive in the Justice Department under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

It was in the early ’60s that Doar first became a public figure, storming through the South as one of the Justice Department’s top civil rights lawyers.

His most spectacular achievement—and it was so uncharacteristically flamboyant that he seemed almost ashamed of it—came after NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Miss, in 1963. The murder threw Jackson’s blacks into a fury that at one point seemed about to erupt into riot. Then Doar—still one of Justice’s chief trouble-shooters—showed up. At a dramatic moment, he appeared smack in the middle of a vicious, violent confrontation between a group of seething blacks and the Jackson police. As Evers’ wife recalled, Doar stepped between the groups and yelled to the blacks, “You’re not going to win anything with bottles and bricks. My name is John Doar—D-O-A-R. I’m from the Justice Department, and anyone around here knows I stand for what is right.” According to the story that has become Doar’s personal grinning-down-the-bear legend, the crowd gradually simmered down and dispersed.

Some critics argue that Doar approached his civil rights work with a fixated, white-man’s-burden attitude. One former aide has said that he “knew best for everybody.” When he left the Department of Justice in 1967, he had the reputation of a slightly patronizing, paternalistic white—another associate called him a “moralistic, puritanical, straight arrow.”

Rodino picked him as the committee counsel last December, after his name had appeared often in recommendations from lawyers, judges, and law school faculties. The Congressman called Doar “bipartisan, fair, objective, conscientious, thorough, responsible.” For his part, Doar emphasized that he had not volunteered. Recently divorced from his wife of 25 years, the former Anne Leffingwell (with whom he has four children), Doar threw himself into the committee’s investigation, in a grinding succession of 18-hour days.

Doar’s immense task of collecting and outlining the evidence the 38-man committee had to consider put him at the head of a staff of 100, nearly half of them lawyers. It was Doar, however—laboring in a hermetic privacy—who marshaled the dizzying swirl of facts, allegations, rationalizations and explanations into a coherent body of information. He rarely surfaced from that task. Once, when a congressman asked if the Doar staff’s tape transcripts were superior to the White House version because of superior equipment, Doar replied, “No, because of superior diligence.”

As he prepared to guide the committee through its final deliberations prior to an impeachment vote Doar said, “I’m going to try to give the committee a fair, objective, thorough analysis of the facts as I see them, and the law.” But during his summation of the evidence the committee had gathered, Doar’s own convictions finally boiled over. While he did not explicitly recommend impeachment, he left little doubt about his own conclusions. Reportedly, in addressing the committee, Doar said, “I can hardly believe I am speaking as I do, or thinking as I do—the awesomeness of this is so—so tremendous…Reasonable men acting reasonably would find the President guilty.”

Afterward, carrying his briefcase, like the weary marshal of “Tombstone,” D.C. after he has done his duty, John Doar headed home to a lonely night, perhaps filled with troubled thoughts about the man he might well bring down.

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