“The situation in this country is almost revolutionary. Things are about to come apart.”
These words possibly describe our current political atmosphere, but over 40 years ago Gen. Alexander Haig chose this warning to persuade my grandfather, Leon Jaworski, to serve our nation as Special Watergate Prosecutor.
Haig’s appeal was not an easy sell to Jaworski who, by age 68, already had a full plate following a respected public service career, which over the decades included bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, prosecuting Mississippi’s governor for criminal contempt during integration, counseling the Warren Commission’s investigation and serving as president of the Texas and American Bar Associations. At the time Haig called, Jaworski enjoyed international respect as a busy leader of a successful Houston law firm.
My grandfather was skeptical of Haig’s request because only days before, Archibald Cox, the first Watergate prosecutor, was fired for seeking White House tapes. Cox’s firing outraged the nation because President Nixon, whose staff and office Cox was investigating, was seen as selfishly terminating a prosecutor who was getting close to the truth.
Nixon and Chief of Staff Haig then chose Leon Jaworski because, as Haig explained, “the only hope of stabilizing the situation is for the president to announce that someone in whom the country has confidence has agreed to serve as special prosecutor.”
Jaworski flew to Washington to consider the appointment but told Haig “there just wasn’t a strong enough guarantee that I could operate without interference.” Haig bluntly responded with an assurance from Nixon himself that the next Watergate prosecutor would have the right and the power to investigate and prosecute any member of the administration, no matter how high his office. Specifically, Nixon agreed he wouldn’t discharge Jaworski absent a supporting consensus of six out of eight congressman, composed of the leadership of both parties in the House and Senate as well as both parties’ leadership in the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
My grandfather could not turn his back on this national crisis. He knew his country needed him, and so he accepted the assignment. Jaworski had twice voted for Nixon and had no idea that Nixon was personally involved in a cover-up.
Nine months later, following efficient and aggressive prosecution, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Nixon’s tapes be released and judicially cast aside his executive privilege. Nixon resigned days later. Watergate’s lesson became thus: no one, not even the president, is above the law.
President Trump’s firing of FBI director Comey recalls the outrage following 1973’s Saturday Night Massacre. Today’s crisis is arguably worse, given the relevant specter of cold war with Russia, a partisan, nonstop news cycle and a social media-fueled public.
This crisis, like before, demands the service of one or more Americans like Leon Jaworski, in whom the country has confidence to find the truth.
The world community expects the United States to lead, especially in matters of justice. Accordingly, the American experience is not just our history, it is everyone’s, and establishing the morality of our national narrative is a daily responsibility of U.S. citizenship. History will severely judge us if, on our watch, we fail to pursue the truth.