These remarks originally delivered March 2, 2020 at the Houston Bar Association Auxiliary 40th Anniversary Leon Jaworski Award Luncheon.
When the United States entered World War II Leon Jaworski was 36 years old, too old to fight, but he felt duty bound to serve. Leaving his position at Fulbright, Crooker, Freeman and Bates, Leon joined the Army, becoming a Judge Advocate General officer, ultimately attaining the rank of Colonel. He first prosecuted military base crimes on domestic soil, then after distinguishing himself in those matters, he crossed the Atlantic to lead Allied prosecutions in post-War Europe. The Colonel prosecuted Nazi soldiers and civilians for War Crimes committed at Hadamar and Dachau, and he avenged the brutal mass murder of American airmen in the infamous “Russelheim Death March” – where civilian townspeople – German men and women – brutally beat and murdered our boys, helpless to defend themselves while being marched in chains through Russelheim’s streets. After three years of service, Colonel Jaworski returned to his young family and home on Rio Vista in Houston’s Third Ward. My Father Joe Jaworski remembers that Leon, his father, returned home a changed man, more coarse, a smoker; he cursed – something Leon, Reverend Jaworski’s son, had never been prone to before. Leon had been deeply affected by what he experienced in Germany. This was his old country – the land of his Father and Mother and two older brothers – the land of Beethoven and Goethe, but now a defeated land, seduced and then ruined by nationalism and the Nazi party. In 1961
Leon Jaworski wrote “After Fifteen Years”, a powerful memoir of his time prosecuting war crimes in Germany. While the book chronicles Nazi depravity and the German people’s acquiescence in it, the book also documents the American jurisprudential response – restoring the rule of law into post-war Germany. The book’s best passage is not just historical, but cautionary. Leon Jaworski wrote:
“Regardless of nationality, man’s mind and heart are vulnerable to the poisonous appeals of tyrants and oppressors who feast on the unfortunate environment that economic strain and political stress present. The venom they spew soon serves as a palliative to the burdened man. It gives him false hopes and causes him to embrace evil precepts. This is a weakness of man that man must recognize. The German masses succumbed to this weakness. Could this happen elsewhere?”
Leon Jaworski’s next twenty five years showed that career success and a servant’s heart are not mutually exclusive. In 1962 Attorney General Robert Kennedy appointed Leon as special counsel to prosecute Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett for his flagrant contempt of the Fifth Circuit’s order to integrate Ole Miss. Gov. Barnett relented, and James Meredith was finally admitted as the school’s first African American student. During his service the Colonel received racist hate mail threatening his children. The law firm lost clients because of Leon’s civil rights advocacy, but Fulbright Crooker supported him unequivocally. Later, Leon served as counsel to The Warren Commission, he served as President of the Houston, Texas and American Bar Associations, he served as a Deacon at Houston’s First Presbyterian Church – all while maintaining a successful law practice.
And then came Watergate.
Following, the October 20, 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, The Colonel initially declined White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig’s invitation to serve as Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox’s replacement. President Nixon figuratively lit a political bomb by orchestrating Cox’s termination, and the only remedy was to appoint a replacement – someone the country could trust. And who better than a conservative Democrat who voted for Nixon in ‘68 and ‘72. But my grandfather didn’t need the job, he had no ambitions in Washington, he was content to practice law and spend weekends at his Wimberley ranch “clearing land” – Hill country vernacular for taking a chainsaw to ubiquitous cedar scrub. Again, Leon’s sense of duty prevailed. He negotiated a bipartisan political guarantee that would prevent his being summarily fired as Cox had been. On Halloween 1973, only eleven days after Cox’s firing, Leon gathered his family at his home on Ella Lee Lane. I was 11 years old – I recall being upset that I wasn’t out with my friends trick or treating. When we arrived, my mother, father and I encountered a scrum of news cameras and reporters outside the home, and we hustled inside. The Colonel explained what he had taken on. I don’t remember his words, but I recall his demeanor. He was subdued, deeply concerned and in need of support. That’s why he wanted his family there with him.
That next Sunday at church, after services concluded, Reverend John Lancaster prayed with us as a family for Leon’s strength, courage and wisdom in the challenge ahead.
So much can be recounted from Leon’s time as Special Watergate Prosecutor, but what sticks with me is spring break March 1974, when I was 12, while Leon and Jeanette were in residence at The Jefferson Hotel. This was just after the smoking gun tape had surfaced, but a couple of weeks before the subpoena issued that would lead to the landmark decision “United States vs. Nixon.” Forty six years ago this month I spring-vacationed for a full week at The Jefferson Hotel with Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski and Mrs. Jaworski. Think of it! Instead of isolating himself, buried in work while opposing the White House – Leon shared history with his school-age grandchildren. Family was his source of strength. How fitting that the sculpture commemorating this award, Stewart, is called “Family.” While much of my time that week was spent with my grandmother touring Washington DC, I recall one crisp morning walking with The Colonel – just the two of us – from The Jefferson to the Special Prosecutor’s offices on K St.; and I’ll never be able to prove it now, but I swear I remember he wore a handcuff securing his briefcase to his wrist. I also remember his hotel suite contained a large Wells Fargo safe into which he would securely deposit his briefcase every night after completing his Watergate homework. I mean … it makes sense given what happened at the DNC headquarters only two years earlier.
The lesson I derive from The Colonel’s consequential time as Watergate Prosecutor is, of course, the constitutional lesson taught in law school: “No man or woman is above the Law; not even the President.” But there is a more human lesson that we attorneys can share: rely on your law partners, your family, and your sense of duty to do what’s right, and always defend the Rule of Law.
Let me conclude by asking this provocative question: What would Leon Jaworski say about this American moment? What would the Colonel say about our present state of civic affairs?
He might recall his remarks from June 1953, delivered at my father’s San Jacinto High School graduation ceremony. There Leon recounted a harsh lesson from his time in Germany. He said this:
“Germany’s disintegration was gradual. The moral decay she experienced was like a slow, cancerous growth.
“There were many men and women who knew that Hitler and his henchmen were doing wrong. But those people, although conscious of what was happening, were either too busy with their own activities and indifferent to what their nation was doing, or they lacked the moral courage to rise and resist at a time when the resistance would have been effective.”
He concluded his remarks thusly: “Don’t think for a moment that what happened in Germany could not also happen in this nation or any other country as well.”
That warning survives to the present day, and, yet, the Colonel would remind us the way forward, even now, by citing his concluding words in “After Fifteen Years.” He wrote:
“No nation, no matter how powerful and great and whatever be its form of government, can long withstand the stranglehold of moral deterioration in its people. How then is this deterioration to be averted? Again, the answer today is the answer of fifteen years ago. The free institutions that made America great must be kept strong and effective, and their work, done faithfully and militantly under God and the Constitution, will preserve us.”
My grandfather would remind us that those free institutions, are worth defending. He’d look to science and fact as the bases of sound decisions. He’d defend our justice system, the free press and the separation of powers. He’d support an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech, and he’d promote equality for all Americans no matter their origin. He’d say to us: be heard frequently, and speak clearly and persuasively in the editorial pages, on social media and at your school board and City council meetings. Leon Jaworski would rally us all, but especially us as attorneys, and he’d say “defend the United States Constitution, – whatever the sacrifice.”
Leon Jaworski lives on through his legacy, and, as informed citizens of the community he called home, his legacy is ours to share. And share it we shall.