FOR SOME people, the Watergate affair was seen to have ended badly because an unimpeached, unindicted, unincarcerated Richard Nixon, pardoned by Gerald Ford, rode off into the sunset and, so far as his being called to account was concerned, well, that was that. What had been done to the president was, in this view, much too little. For others -- intimates of Richard Nixon and a sizable number of unpersuadables at large -- everything that preceded and provoked the president's resignation had been much too much. The Watergate prosecutions were seen as an attempt -- unfairly and at great risk to the nation--to bring down a president who had important business to do, who was doing it well and whose criminal tendencies were no more troublesome than those of many of his revered predecessors.
Among people who tended toward either of these views, Leon Jaworski, who died last week in Texas, was regarded as a failure at best and a culprit at worst. We thought otherwise. Mr. Jaworski, over the years, was involved in many other public affairs, and took actions and stands with which we would certainly quarrel. But in the matter of Watergate, we think he was right -- not just right, but also: inventive, clever, stubborn and wise. These traits and more were required to bring off his major prosecutorial accomplishments. We are thinking not just of the numerous indictments and convictions of top presidential aides, but also of the big challenge, that of dealing with the president himself.
After the fact, it all looks easy, self-evident. But the challenge Mr. Jaworski faced and mastered was that of getting the record of Mr. Nixon's involvement first to the grand jury and then from the grand jury to the court and thence across town and across institutional lines to the House Judiciary Committee. This transfer was not simple to effect. It was a brilliant maneuver. Mr. Jaworski had not wished to engage the country in the prolonged dispute certain to ensue over whether a sitting president could be indicted. He believed the responsibility of Congress in the matter -- it was already oiling up its rusty impeachment machinery -- was paramount. He provided for it the important fruits of his own inquiry. He also doggedly pursued and ultimately won the contest for access to the famous tapes.
In a way, Mr. Jaworski represented a familiar (and hilarious) Washington phenomenon: the person who is appointed to fill the slot of one who has been unceremoniously fired for policy reasons -- a replacement who then turns out to be just as committed as the fired one himself . . . and necessarily a whole lot harder to get rid of. People ask why Richard Nixon never destroyed the tapes. We ask why he ever appointed Leon Jaworski. It sealed his doom. A man determined to overcome the rumors that he was just Richard Nixon's hired political fixer, he knew precisely how to get at and conduct the case that was there.
Leon Jaworski had brains, compassion, balance and nerve. He did a distinguished job while he was in Washington.