Edward Bennett Williams is wondering aloud if the president of the United States has not cast a hex on the Baltimore Orioles. "I'm glad he came," he says, "but every time he does, we lose."
Williams, whose obsession with the Orioles has deepened with every year he has owned the team, sits in his box, working the muscles in his fleshy face, wringing the knotty tension from his huge, powerful hands. No wonder: It's Monday, opening day, bottom of the eighth, Baltimore trailing 6-4, bases loaded. Ernie Camacho is pitching for the Indians, Rick Dempsey is batting for the Orioles. Williams wants to win, his whole body wants to win. He stands. Sits down. Stands again. He tries to talk away the nervousness:
"Dempsey could be a hero here . . . You know, my pitchers are getting shelled all day, and all Dempsey says he wants to do is talk to the president about Libya . . . He can pull it out . . . All he's got to do is hit a blooper into the outfield . . . A little blooper, for chrissakes . . . That'll clear the bases."
Camacho wings a fast ball at around 90 mph over the outside corner. Dempsey turns and gazes at it, as if an unexpected visitor had walked through his door. Strike 1 called.
Williams shuts his eyes:
Strange that at 65 Williams is so caught up in the tension of games. He made his name in more severe competitions, representing some of the most infamous hooligans, pols and mountebanks of his time -- Joe McCarthy, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Costello, Sam Giancana, Robert Vesco, Adam Clayton Powell, Bobby Baker, the Birdman of Alcatraz, even a Russian spy named Igor Malekh.
He does not look like the most celebrated trial lawyer of his time in the way that, say, Robert Frost looked like the bard of New England. Williams could easily be a New York flatfoot or a retired club fighter with a decent job at a brokerage house. He is a big man with a broad belly and a shimmying jowl. When he speaks it is with precise, formal syntax but a slightly pained pitch, as if his shoes were too tight and his breakfast coffee cold.
Camacho delivers another fast ball. Dempsey swings the bat badly, as if he were wielding a small, leafy tree instead of a flame-smoothed splinter of ash. He strains and connects, but pitifully, with a ping, not a crack, and the ball begins to rise lazily, describing in the air a graceful, yet losing, parabola.
Before the ball reaches its peak, Williams reaches his; a mighty disappointment brings him to his feet. He waits out the pop-up in the vain hope that a professional shortstop will bobble the ball and lift an old man's heart. No such luck. The shortstop closes his glove and the Orioles lose their best chance of the day.
Williams used to own a piece of the Redskins, but it seems that did not provide adequate occasions for agony: "In football you only have 16 vulnerable days for depression. In baseball, it's practically every day."
The buffed and blazered guests in the owner's box are making a show of their displeasure, wondering at great volume if a pinch hitter would have won the day and what the loss portends about the remaining 161 games on the schedule. Even before the ninth inning begins -- it could only be an anticlimax -- Williams is trying not to make too much out of a few hours of sport on an April afternoon.
"Life doesn't begin on opening day. Baseball does," he says. "The rest of life just goes on somehow."
Edward Bennett Williams is a primal man, but his every gesture, be it volcanic or kind, evokes complicated emotions in everyone he knows. Says columnist Art Buchwald, one of his closest friends: "I guess there are guys who love him, and there are others who'd like to throw him out the window. Eddie's his own man. He doesn't worry."
He himself has always had a singularly uncomplicated way of looking at much of life -- "contest living," he calls it, an obsession with victory, hell-bent-for-leather competition in the courtroom, in the board room, in the ball yard. If he had been a baseball player, Ty Cobb would have been his mentor. Slide with your spikes high. Losing's for nice guys, for suckers.
Nine years ago Williams discovered that his toughness would be tested in a realm without limits. In the past nine years he has had six cancer operations on his colon, liver and lung. His battle with cancer continues even now with operations, blood tests and experimental interleukin treatments. Over lunch at his office he brings up the subject of illness himself, and as he does his eyes are glazed:
"I'd never been sick in my whole life. The only way I found out was that I noticed when I came to work in the morning I was sort of nauseous, the way women must feel when they have morning sickness. The doctors told me I was overworked. They said I needed time off. I said, 'Nobody dies from overwork.' So I went out and prescribed a barium X-ray for myself. They told me I had a polyp in my colon."
After that first operation Williams began regular blood exams known as CEA tests -- carcinoembryonic antigen tests. "I knew there was a such thing as a metastasis and you had to watch for it constantly. But I also knew that my mother and my father each had colon cancer. They were in their midfifties when they discovered it. They had surgery and they never went back in the hospital. There weren't any CEA tests or CAT scans in those days. They both died when they were over 90, and not from cancer. They just ran out of life."
In early 1984, just after an operation on his lungs, Williams called his colleagues together and said, "Look, if I can't perform at full speed, I'm not going to stay here. I have only two speeds. None and full." That year he billed 3,200 hours, more than anyone else at a firm known throughout the Washington legal community for its endless workday. "I had to find out for myself," he says. "Maybe I was testing myself."
Last year was tougher. Williams had operations -- "search-and-destroy missions" he calls them -- in January and September. "I got cut down two times last year, but I have not been sick," he insists. His diction is full of steel and denial. "I don't know if you understand what I'm saying to you. I have never been sick, never physically sick from this disease."
But cancer cannot be willed away. Illness prevented him from defending his client, The Washington Post, in 1982 against a libel suit brought by William Tavoulareas, former president of Mobil Oil. One of Williams' partners at the time, Irving Younger, tried the case. But last fall, two weeks after another operation, Williams got out of a hospital bed, prepared an appellate argument for The Post and delivered it in the U.S. Court of Appeals. Williams' principal physician, Jerome DeCosse, who recently moved from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to New York Hospital, says he is optimistic about "his ability to function and lead a normal life."
Contest living has always been the metaphor for his professional life. Now it is sustenance, a way of defining the struggle for life itself. Williams says he refuses to let himself get depressed. He rules his own mind as he controls a jury. "If you think you're licked, you have less of a chance than if you think, 'I'm not going to quit, I'm going to treat this as something I'm going to overcome.' "
He is open about his health problems and has been helpful to friends and colleagues who have also been hit by the disease. Illness, perhaps, has also extended the range of his empathy. A few months ago Simon and Schuster sent author Robert Sam Anson to Washington for a meeting to discuss a possible book collaboration. Anson gave Williams a copy of "Exile," his profile of Richard Nixon in retirement.
Williams and Nixon had never been close. When Williams was president of the Redskins and Nixon of the country, Nixon preferred to sit in the stands rather than in the owner's box. Williams represented both The Washington Post and the Democratic National Committee during the Watergate years, and on the tapes Nixon can be heard threatening to "fix the son of a bitch."
Anson's account "moved" Williams immensely, and he wrote Nixon a letter saying so. "I thought it was a fantastic demonstration of pure guts," Williams says. "I don't know anyone who took as much punishment in my time as Nixon took in the decade following his resignation." Nixon sent back a long, handwritten letter saying he was sorry about the way he and Williams had parted and wished him well.
Toughness is his self-prescription. Every time he has been hospitalized, he has forced himself to his feet the day after surgery. "The more you stay in bed," he says, "the more you stay in the hospital. Get up! Get going! I stay seven days and I come back to work."
Williams knows what it is to stare death in the eye and turn away. During his law school years he served in the Army Air Force. When his training bomber crashed, he suffered a concussion. Everyone else in the plane was killed.
Says radio host and friend Larry King: "Ed's not ready to go. And if he's not ready to go, he ain't going."
After lunch Williams folds himself into his car for the drive out to Dulles to meet his client Marvin Davis, a billionaire Denver oil magnate. Since Davis sold 20th Century-Fox to Rupert Murdoch last year, he has become "incredibly liquid," says Williams, and he needs advice in his search for investments to shelter his cash -- a recent effort to buy CBS failed. When the stakes are so high, Williams and Davis do not trust the phone lines.
Sitting in the back seat of a car with Williams, one wonders about the awe he inspires in so many of his clients and colleagues. He seems to them something far more than just an outstanding trial lawyer; he is almost a mysterious force of nature. "As a young lawyer," says former colleague Pierce O'Donnell, "being in the room with Ed Williams was somewhat akin to having your breath sucked out by a tornado."
"I've always wondered," says David Webster, another former colleague, "how Ed Williams can make grown men tremble. Fear is too much of an imposition. It's not threat or fear or bluster or bluff. It's something engendered in yourself. He has special insight into your weaknesses and knows how to use them." At the firm, people try to anticipate Williams' thoughts, his moods. To make life easier, Williams' secretary used to keep a "mood meter" by the elevator. When the meter pointed to "basement," it was time to watch out.
At the moment, Williams is in good humor. The car pulls up to the private jetport at Dulles. An attendant says Davis' plane will be at least a half-hour late. Computer trouble. Williams, who owns an Israeli-made Westwind, knows about such troubles; he takes a seat in the lounge. The place is crawling with powerful acquaintances. John and Annie Glenn are on their way home to Ohio. The Glenns and Williams chat about planes. Minutes later, Mobil's public relations guru, Herb Schmertz, ambles by. The two are adversaries in the Tavoulareas-Washington Post libel case, but they, too, talk like old friends.
"Hey Eddie, you giving an interview? Maybe you want my side of the story?"
"Freedom of speech, Herbie. Go ahead."
They laugh. They shake hands. The establishment does not raise its voice in public. Williams is a long, long way from a poor childhood in Hartford, Conn., and he knows how to play the Washington game, he knows the appropriate tone at the given moment, and he has nothing but suspicion for those who do not. Williams, a member of the Metropolitan Club, a former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, a friend or acquaintance of nearly every major figure in Washington from Reagan on down, long ago shed his outsider's pugnacity. You don't get any more inside than Ed Williams.
And there is an insider's decorum to observe that is no more flexible than the Ten Commandments or the "code" of Williams' old client, mobster Frank Costello. An insider does not like to be humbled or surprised. A man of fierce loyalties, Williams likes that loyalty returned. He appreciates it, for example, when Edward Kennedy thinks to tell him in advance of his announcement that he will not run for president in 1988.
Conversely, Williams did not much care for the way Jimmy Carter expressed his disdain for him and the Washington establishment. He had served on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Gerald Ford; he had no idea that his post would be terminated. Carter banned the board, sending Williams and the other members photocopied letters firing them, with attached forms for unemployment compensation.
"That took some nerve," says Williams.
"If I could psychoanalyze myself, I thought I was deeply offended by Carter's contempt for this city and its people -- my friends. I believe he had a deep, deep contempt for what you call the Washington establishment, the people I've grown up with as adults who have been active in Democratic politics for years and years. He shunted them aside and treated them with an arrogance that I thought was unparalleled."
A few years later Williams led the movement to "open" the 1980 Democratic convention in order to unseat Carter and promote a Henry Jackson candidacy.
Williams' loyalties to friends such as Buchwald and Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and the attorneys in his firm are extreme. If he sees that loyalty going unreciprocated, he can be inconsolable. He will weep. He will rant. When a colleague decided one day to go to another firm, Williams cried that night and then never spoke to that lawyer again.
Last year he sold his 14.7 percent share of the Redskins to Jack Kent Cooke for an estimated $8 million to $10 million and elected to stop doing any of Cooke's legal work. They no longer speak, friends say. But Williams will not comment. In fact, in many hours of interviews there were only two subjects he met with a "no comment": his devotion to the Catholic Church and his split with Jack Kent Cooke. "Ed and Cooke definitely don't like each other," says Larry King. "Ed doesn't like Cooke's style. He's not his kind of guy." The fact that Cooke has often talked of bringing a major league baseball team to Washington -- and thereby challenging the Orioles' hold on D.C. fans -- cannot have improved the situation.
Williams' imposing presence surfaced at a follow-up interview in his office. As he slowly denuded a Clark bar, he peered up from behind his immense desk and expressed "disagreement" with something done in the course of reporting. He said he thought that since he was not running for office, since he's "never been at the public trough," it was improper for the reporter to have called his doctor, Jerome DeCosse.
Prowling the room, circling his listener, Williams used the office the way he would a courtroom and, to an audience -- and target -- of one, the effect was chilling, though he was never anything less than calm and courteous. "I don't know," he said, "you may dis-a-gree with me on this . . ." It was the terrible evenness of his delivery that held such force, the way a strong father can dominate simply by the implied threat of his fury.
Is he aware of the fear he evokes in others?
"Fear? I don't try to instill fear. I try to elicit love."
Williams smiles at his own formulation.
"I regard fear as an entirely secondary emotion. But if you can't instill love, then fear may be the only thing left."
As a lawyer, Williams learned long ago never to betray his emotions in the courtroom. But as the owner of the Orioles, his emotions are oversized, those of a mercurial child with a multimillion-dollar toy. Baseball allows Williams a kind of purgation, an arena where he can express himself without restraint. He writhes and yowls in agony as his team falls behind. He will belt his visitors with joy when the O's move ahead.
"The field of forces around Ed when things are not going well is spectacular," says his friend, columnist George Will. "The torment of being a fan, much less an owner, is that your emotions are mortgaged to nine men on a field." Jim Palmer says it took Williams "about a summer" to learn the intricacies of the professional game, and from then on, "Ed seemed to live and die with every pitch. He's just like Weaver used to be."
Disgusted with the team's plunge to mediocrity after winning the World Series, Williams fired manager Joe Altobelli and brought back Earl Weaver. In fact, he gives Altobelli no credit at all for 1983.
"If I'd managed, if anybody had managed that team, we would have won," says Williams. "They were out to prove they could win without Earl. In 1984 they needed a whip and they didn't get it."
Altobelli, who now lives in Rochester, N.Y., resents not only the implication that he had nothing to do with Baltimore's World Series win, but also the way he was fired: "Winning's easier said than done, my man. He also called me 'cement head,' but that doesn't make him right. Jesus, if a guy gets the heat when his ball team isn't winning, then he ought to get the goddam credit when he wins the Series, don't ya think?"
Asked if had indeed called Altobelli "cement head," Williams says he can't remember actually using the particular term "but it was not inconsistent with my thinking on the subject."
At the end of a long day, Williams rides home to Potomac. His first wife Dorothy Adair died of respiratory ailments in 1959 when she was 34. A year after her death Williams married Agnes Neill, a top lawyer in his firm. He has three children from his first marriage, four from his second.
Agnes Williams has always insisted that the children not work for their father, and for the most part they have not. They are computer programmers, administrators, teachers and college students. One daughter, Dana, left her job at a newspaper in Hagerstown to help her father write an "update" of his 1962 memoir, "One Man's Freedom." Williams says that even while one of his sons, Ned, "would be great" at running the Orioles, he has not worked him into the business.
His public life in politics has mainly been a series of no-thank-yous and might-have-beens. He considered running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland but finally decided against it; he turned down Gerald Ford's invitation to run the CIA because of the havoc it would bring on the firm; he rebuffed LBJ's invitation to be the first mayor of Washington.
"I predicted to him that there would be trouble in the city -- you didn't have to be the oracle at Delphi to know that -- and I said, 'It's going to blow, and when it does you ought to have a black man, not a white man.' He saw the wisdom of that and he named Walter Washington. Eight months later I was flying back at night from St. Louis -- I'll never forget it, it was the day after Martin Luther King had been shot -- and from over Washington I could see fires burning. In that situation Walter Washington was able to do things a white man could never have done."
The only "public" position Williams is sometimes suspected of holding without public knowledge is that of "Deep Throat," The Washington Post's crucial source during the Watergate scandal. Bob Woodward says flatly that Williams was not the source, but Williams' own children still pester him:
"They get me and say, 'Dad, c'mon, please, just one question, no kidding around. Just tell us this. Were you Deep Throat?' So I tell them, 'Deep Throat, you all know.' And they go crazy. They do." He adds enigmatically, "They all know Deep Throat."
As the car pulls up to the house, Williams can see Agnes standing in the doorway. The children will be home in a few days. The house, surrounded by so much darkness and land, seems a great ship on a flat black sea.
The day is far from done. People are coming over for a business meeting and there is a stack of phone messages to answer. Lugging his huge litigation bag, Williams takes a walk around the back of his house. In sight are occasional trees, a line of hedges, fields that roll out into the night. In the dusk, he looks older, tired. Away from the owner's box, away from the ornaments of power and privilege, he seems so ordinary, a successful lawyer thirsty for a drink and ready for a break, but only that. As he talks, Williams sends long plumes of vapor into the cold dark.
"I don't block out any parts of my life. I think about it but I don't worry about it. I just do the things I've always done. My wife is very cool about my illness. It's gotten a lot more attention from other people than from us. I give it the time it needs, no more."
Tomorrow: Edward Bennett Williams, into the "old days."