Printer Friendly

Inherit the mint; how Edward Bennett Williams made legal prostitution respectable.

Michael Milken, the junk bond king, looked stricken. The Justice Department was closing in on the empire he had built out of vision, guile, and larceny. Frightened, Milken had done what many powerful men had done when they had a serious problem. He had done what Senator Joseph McCarthy, Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, mafia don Frank Costello, LBJ aide Bobby Baker, singer Frank Sinatra, Soviet spy Igor Melekh, industrialist Armand Hammer, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Democratic Party Chairman Robert Strauss, Playboy owner Hugh Hefner, Texas Governor John Connally, financier Robert Vesco, Senator Thomas Dodd, CIA Director Richard Helms, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, Reverend Sun-Young Moon, and President Gerald Ford had all done before him: He had gone to Edward Bennett Williams.

Williams was not content to be just a great lawyer. He wanted power, and he wanted to be seen as a force for larger ends than the narrow representation of his clients. He was, at least in the beginning, an effective crusader for individual freedom. In the name of civil liberties and protecting the rights of the criminally accused, he helped spark a judicial revolution against unchecked police power in the fifties and sixties. Before anyone else, Williams exposed the illegal acts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation--the wiretapping, break-ins, buggings, and "black-bag jobs"--that were rotting J. Edgar Hoover's empire from within. Behind the scenes, he played a little-known but critical role in revealing and ultimately reining in the abusive power of Richard Nixon's White House. Williams not only urged Ben Bradlee to print the Pentagon Papers, he helped give The Washington Post editor the courage--and quite possibly, the inside information--to press forward with the newspaper's probe into Watergate when the rest of the establishment press was turning the other way.

Yet having exposed the abuse of power, Williams went on to protect it. Apparently without a second thought, Williams defended the very people exposed by the scandals that he had helped unearth. He defended a half dozen private and public powerbrokers from charges brought by the Watergate special prosecutor. He defended CIA Director Richard Helms against accusations that he had authorized an illegal break-in and lied to Congress. He defended the FBI's top specialist against charges of having performed black-bag jobs. And in the secret councils of the White House, he argued against restricting CIA eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.

Williams saw no irony in playing both sides. He was an advocate, and he was intent on winning. If he could expose a scandal and then turn around and get off the people embroiled in it, so much the better. He won both ways. He always had. In the fifties, he had represented communists and fellow travelers before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), while at the same time he represented the greatest red-baiter of them all, Senator Joe McCarthy. Throughout his career, Williams appeared to be involved in a variety of conflicts of interest. But he believed he could represent everyone's interests at once, and he often succeeded in finding a middle way. Certainly he served his own interests. His individual clients were almost always happy as well. But viewed from a distance of years, Williams's ceaseless maneuvering sometimes to add up to one vast zero-sum game.

Williams would defend anyone, he liked to say, as long as the client gave him total control of the case and paid up front. He would represent mafia dons and pornographers for enormous fees. He would also represent priests, judges, and attractive women in distress for little or nothing. Yet he did not like to represent clients who stood for causes. He thought it was a mistake to mix ideology with law and he worried that political activists would not give him the total control he demanded. He refused to represent Dr. Benjamin Spock and several other antiwar activists indicted for inciting students to burn their draft cards in 1970. "They don't need a lawyer," he scoffed. "They need a toastmaster."

But when necessary, Williams could sound like a true believer. Imploring William F. Buckley to aid in McCarthy's defense in 1954, Williams declared, "We've got to save Joe! It's important to save the country from the communist threat." Buckley recalls that he thought Williams was a "good 100 percent witch hunter." With arched eyebrows, he adds, "and two years later I discovered he was Mr. ACLU." (By 1955, Williams had put some distance between himself and the senator.)

When he had to defend himself, Williams could be very persuasive. The New York Times's Washington bureau chief, Arthur Krock, took a liking to Williams and invited him to dinner one night during the McCarthy censure hearings. Some other prominent reporters were there, and they started in on Williams for defending McCarthy. How could he defend such a terrible man? Williams was tired that night, and a little dour and defensive, recalls columnist Rowland Evans, another guest. After moodily listening to the badgering, he began, "Well, it's a funny thing. A doctor is driving along the road at night, and there's terrible accident. He rushes over. The driver is bloody. The doctor immediately tries to save his life. Or a priest is on a boat and he sees a passenger crushed by a boom. The priest runs over to administer last rites. Neither one of them has asked the character of the victim. But when a lawyer rushes in," Williams looked at his accusers, "this is what happens!" The dinner table quieted. The questioning stopped.

Williams's logic was clever, but a little specious and self-serving. His speech, which became his stock reply to critics, smacks of the debating tricks taught at his alma matter, Holy Cross. Williams was arguing by inapposite analogy. Unlike lawyers who hold themselves out to criminal defendants, the doctor and the priest are not deliberately seeking money by helping the victims they chance upon, nor are they seeking to excuse the criminal acts of their patients/penitents. A priest has a duty to God; he cannot refuse a penitent. A lawyer, however, is not compelled to defend Joe McCarthy. The fact is that lawyers are not required to represent everyone who asks them to, and Williams himself often said so. He had a genuine sense of duty about the right to counsel, but it is fair to say that he was more interested in marketing himself and getting headlines than playing the Good Samaritan. He had little interest in cases that were unexceptional or uninteresting. He wanted cases that were notorious or lucrative--and preferably both.

With friends, Williams was gleeful about his notices. Frank Waldrop, the executive editor of the Washington Times Herald, remembers Williams lying, half drunk, on the floor of his house one night. "There are three things in life," Williams said. "Money, power, and public relations. My wife is rich, and I wouldn't know what to do with power, but give me those press clippings!"

By the sixties, Ed Williams's reputation as a trial lawyer was complete. He had nothing further to gain from astonishing victories in the courtroom, and he feared he had much to lose if he failed to live up to his reputation. Moreover, the guiltier the clients, the less sense it made to bring them before a jury. More and more, Williams turned to cutting deals with the prosecutor behind closed doors. This required access, a commodity most prized in Washington by the many seeking favors from the few, and it became increasingly important for Williams to cultivate and win over Washington insiders.

Though he continued to enjoy the company of scoundrels, his craving for respectability, his longing to belong, led him to climb toward loftier circles. In the sixties, Williams's ambition shifted from staging spectacular courtroom upsets to penetrating and then joining the Washington elite. Where once he was satisfied with fame, he now craved power.

Williams was in awe of Clark Clifford--the model of a private lawyer whose access and influence gave him real power. An invitation to Clifford's Christmas buffet was a more accurate indication of clout in the capital than membership in the Chevy Chase Club. Clifford understood that Ed Williams could be useful to him. Clifford preferred not to handle criminal matters, but his clients sometimes came to him clutching grand jury subpoenas. So Clifford began sending them down the street to Williams.

Williams was, in Clifford's estimation, a shrewed judge of character with a knack for solving problems. Increasingly, when Clifford wanted to chew over a difficult question, he gave Williams a call. Clifford flattered Williams: "How's my lawyer?" he would ask in his sikly, mellifluous voice. Williams, in turn, shamelessly flattered Clifford. "I'm still young enough in spirit to have living heroes, two of them, and you're one," Williams wrote Clifford in the summer of 1967.

Williams was untroubled by charges of "influence by association." "What are you supposed to do--stop practicing law whenever one of your friends becomes president?" he asked. The idea that one of his friends could become president did not seem remote to Williams. Getting your friends into office and then asking them for favors was the way the world worked--his world anyway.

Flying on the private jet of Phillips Petroleum on the way to handle a case with Clifford in the midseventies, Williams gleefully acted out a pantomime of a delegation of Arabs visiting Clifford in his office. Williams, a perfect mimic, imitated Clifford gravely telling the sheiks, "You understand, of course, that I can only get you access." Then Williams imitated the Arabs winking and grinning as they shoved a bag of gold across Clifford's desk. Clifford watched this performance with some distaste. "Now, Ed," he interrupted, "you know it doesn't work that way."

Williams's philosophy of life, he was fond of telling reporters, was "contest living." In life, he said, "every effort is marked down at the end as a win or a loss." One of Williams's bonding rituals with the young lawyers in his firm was to play softball and touch football with them and their families on weekends. Williams was just as competitive about winning these games as he was about winning a court case--and he was a better winner than a loser. Up by four runs in the last inning of a game, Williams pitched to a small boy who hit a grounder to second. The throw to first was just in time, but the umpire called the boy safe anyway. Williams exploded. "The kid was out! He was out!" he ranted. The opposing team went on to score five runs and win. Williams welled up with tears and began to cry like a Little Leaguer who had dropped the game-losing fly ball. His law partners, who were accustomed to his moods, gaped in wonder at the rawness of his emotional drive.


His firm was thriving, his team was winning, and his insider status was secure. But Williams had not won a big, highly publicized criminal trial since he had saved Adam Clayton Powell from jain in 1960. His defeat in the Bobby Baker trial in 1967 still gnawed at him. He had made his reputation as a great trial lawyer and he wanted to prove that he hadn't lost his touch, that he could still dazzle the public by successfully defending a notorious client against stiff odds. Watergate was the great legal as well as moral spectacle of the day, but Williams felt excluded from the main arena. He could not very well defend the same Nixon White House he had sued as counsel to the Democratic National Committee. So Williams was left to represent corporate fat cats who had been caught making illegal campaign contributions. The defense work required Williams's skill at manipulating prosecutors, but it was mostly behind the scenes.

John Connally put Williams back on the front page.

Connally's highly publicized trial in the spring of 1975 would reestablish Williams as the nation's preeminent trial lawyer. To his law partners--and to Williams himself--the defense of Connally would be remembered not just as a successful day in court but as a work of art. At the very least, it was a how-to guide for the defense of politicians accused of corruption.

Connally, former secretary of the treasury under Nixon, former governor of Texas, Lyndon Johnson's right-hand man, was not known for humility. The first time the Watergate special prosecutor asked him to testify before the grand jury, he "didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention to it," Connally recalled. The prosecutor was probing political payoffs to the Nixon administration from the milk producers, one of the most generous lobbies in Washington. Had Connally been offered $10,000 by a middleman named Jake Jacobsen to help the milk lobby? Connally dismissed the question. He couldn't recall "a dang thing" about any such conversation. A few months later, however, when he was called again before the grand jury, his memory improved. He had discussed such a contribution with Jacobsen, he conceded, but he swore that he had turned down the money.

The Watergate special prosecutor's office had become omnivorous, but Connally was too busy plotting his own political future to notice. He was on a 36-state speaking tour, a warm-up for a presidential run in 1976, when the grand jury leaks began. Columnist Jack Anderson and Daniel Schorr of CBS reported that Jake Jacobsen was singing to the grand jury, testifying that he had given Connally a $10,000 payoff. It began to dawn on Connally that the relaxed standards common in Texas did not apply in Washington. Watergate had "poisoned the atmosphere," he said.

Williams took Connally's call late on a Friday night in June 1974. "I'm at the Mayflower Hotel," Connally told him. "You've got to come over right now." Taking the first subtle step in his minuet of control, Williams told Connally he would see him--the next morning in Williams's office. Accustomed to lawyers who groveled for their clients, Connally did not realize that Williams would insist on reversing the roles. After the briefest consideration, Williams set his fee: $400,000.

On July 19, Connally was indicted for taking a $10,000 illegal gratuity from Jacobsen and then lying to the grand jury about it. Several weeks later, on the day that Richard Nixon succumbed to the Watergate onslaught and resigned as president, Williams accompanied Connally to the federal courthouse, where he was arraigned and fingerprinted. Afterward, the two men sat in Williams's office watching television as Nixon awkwardly waved from his helicopter and flew off into exile and disgrace. "You could feel what everyone in the office was thinking but nobody was saying," said Mike Tigar, the associate who was helping Williams on the case. Had it not been for the milk fund and the aggressive Watergate prosecutor, Connally believed, he would have been sworn in that day as president of the United States. Before the grand jury called him, Connally had fully expected Nixon to ask him to be his vice president, succeeding Spiro Agnew, who had resigned to avoid bribery charges in 1973. Now Connally faced a jail term, and only Williams could save him.

Williams's initial strategy was the same one he invariably employed in major criminal cases: delay. To mute the reverberations of Watergate, Williams wanted to put as much time as possible between Richard Nixon's resignation and Connally's trial. Williams knew that he could not make the case quietly go away by cutting a favorable deal with the prosecutor. His cagey charm was useless with the prosecutor assigned to the case, Frank Tuerkheimer, an upright and wooden law school professor who was wary of his famous opponent. The judge, however, was a more promising target. Frail and slight, with wispy hair, a pinched face, an arthritic hands, Judge George Hart was a Nixon appointee and Republican hard-liner. A few years before, he had sent Williams a friendly note praising him for his pro-law-and-order remarks during a TV interview.

In pretrial conferences, Williams shamelessly played to Hart's prejudices against the press. "I wouldn't talk to these people [reporters], Judge," Williams said at one session in Judge Hart's chambers. "Tell you what I do. I've found the best way not to have a problem is not to talk to them, not to take their calls." Williams asked Hart to impose a gag order on both the prosecution and the defense. "The one person I can't put any restriction on is Connally," said Judge Hart. Williams replied, "He hasn't talked to anybody. I put a restriction on him." Warming up to the spirit of press bashing, Judge Hart remarked, "These newspaper reporters . . . ever since Sullivan versus New York Times . . . have got a license to lie." "That's right," agreed Williams, ignoring, for the moment, his representation of The Washington Post.

In the fall of 1974 and the winter of 1975, William's firm flooded the prosecutors with the usual tide of pretrial motions. Many were simply to buy time, but one was critical. Connally had been indicted for taking the payoff as well as for lying to the grand jury. The prosecutor vigorously argued that the perjury counts shold be tried together with the illegal gratuity counts, since the lying was intended to cover up the payoff. It was all part of the same crime. Williams argued that the payoffs and the perjury were separate crimes and should be tried separately.

Despite the restrictive rules of courtroom evidence, the legal precedent was mostly against Williams on the question of severing charges that were as closely intertwined as taking a payoff and then lying about it. Indeed, Williams was vexed to discover that the D.C. federal court case most strongly supporting the prosecutor's position was Judge Oliver Garsch's opinion refusing to sever the tax and fraud counts in the Bobby Baker case.

Nonetheless, in the Connally case, Williams was able to persuade Judge Hart to sever the perjury counts. In the judge's chambers, the prosecutors grumbled that if Connally had been a mafia don, the link between the charges would never have been cut. Tuerkheimer remained bitter about Hart's decision. "William's argument was casuistic but beguiling," he said years later. "Hart thought really highly of Williams. He didn't give a shit if he pissed off Frank Tuerkheimer, but he sure wasn't going to alienate Edward Bennett Williams. I've never seen a lawyer interact better with a judge than Williams."

In retrospect, Judge Hart's action may have been decisive. The government had much stronger evidence of Connally lying than taking the payoff. In his second appearance before the grand jury, Connally had flatly contradicted his initial testimony. At first he had said that he never discussed the payoff with Jacobsen; then he had admitted that he had. Here was demonstrable perjury. But as to whether he actually took the payoff--the proof essentially rested on Jacobsen's word against Connally's. And Connally would prove to be a much better witness than Jacobsen.

As he almost did in a federal case, Williams planned to put Connally on the stand to testify in his own defense. He was determined that Connally would be well prepared--better prepared than Bobby Baker. Williams faced a difficult task. Connally, was arrogant. He also had left a trail of contradictions in the grand jury room. In order to repair the damage he had done before the grand jury, Connally had to be carefully coached. Because the basic question--Did Connally take the payoff?--boiled down to Connally's word against Jacobsen's, Williams did not have to cook up an imaginative new theory of the case, as he did for Jimmy Hoffa, who had been filmed by the FBI taking a bribe. But he did want to make sure that Connally would not get tripped up by small factual inconsistencies. Bobby Baker had been ruined by his petty lies on the stand. Williams was determined that Connally would not suffer from the same sloppiness.

Four hours, Williams and his associates worked over Connally in William's conference room. (Mike Tigar, with typical mock-heroic swagger, had renamed the blue-walled chamber "the Situation Room" to convey a more warlike atmosphere.) No fact was too small or seemingly insignificant to go unmassaged. Aided by Tigar, who had returned to the firm in 1974 specifically to help on the Connally case, Williams collected every call slip, every phone bill, every bank statement, every scrap of evidence that the prosecutors could possibly use to catch Connally in a lie. In the Situation Room, Williams played prosecutor, setting small traps for the witness. Connally had tol the grand jury that he had met with Jacobsen at five o'clock in the afternoon one day at the Sheraton Crest in Austin, Texas. But a hotel waiter had told the prosecutors that he had served Connally and Jacobsen breakfast. Remembering how Bill Bittman had made Bobby Baker squirm by placing him in Las Vegas on a night Baker had said he was in Los Angeles, Williams bore into Connally about this seemingly minor inconsistency. Williams was earthy with Connally. "Remember when that shine came into your hotel room with the poached eggs? Right now that shine has got it--he's got you!" Williams put himself right in Connally's face, demanding an answer. Connally sputtered that he couldn't remember any damn waiter. No! said Williams. You can't just say you don't remember. It will seem like you're being evasive, that you're hiding something. You have to be positive, he told Connally. His client got the message. "Yes, I do remember that waiter," the defendant replied, with a pleasant smile. "Such a nice man. You know that, now that I think about it, I do recall. . . ."

Muzzling the millionaire

Williams intentionally tried to provoke Connally, to get him to lash back. At times he used Richard Keeton, a lawyer in Connally's firm, to play prosecutor, asking needling questions that irritated Connally. "Why did you hang around with sleazebags?" Keeton would demand. Jut-jawed and upright, Connally was full of righteous indignation about his predicament. He continued to feel that he was the victim of Watergate morality, that the rules had changed on him after the fact to make criminal what was once merely business as usual--at least in Texas. "To be accused of taking a goddamned $10,000 bribe offended me beyond all reason," Connaly later protested. Among cynics in the firm, there was a sneaking suspicion that Connally's indignation stemmed from the fact that he had been indicted for taking such a small payoff. The joke around the firm was that if the bribe had been $200,000, Williams would have believed the government, since, in Texas politics, $10,000 was a mere tip.

With rising indignation, Connally demanded that Williams subpoena Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, to support him. "No!" Williams insisted. "No Watergate! We don't even want to mention Watergate to the jurors. They'll blow up the courthouse." Connally worked himsel up into a state. "They have spent five million dollars if they've spent a dime to ruin me! Let them blow up the courthouse!" To defuse the moment, Williams used Tigar as a foil. Tigar, who liked to boast about all the militant radicals he had defended, joked, "You're the second client I've represented who wanted to blow up the courthouse." Williams cracked, "Yeah, but the first one did it before the indictment." All three men had a good chuckle. "Okay," said Williams, "you can look at your family from the stand once during your testimony and say that you would never lie. But that's it. No matter how unjust you think this is, the jury won't. So don't be arrogant."

Not all of the facts facing Connally could be easily explained away. As part of the cover-up, the prosecutors contended, Connally had given the $10,000 back to Jacobsen and told him to put the money away in a safe-deposit box. Jacobsen would then testify that he had been given the money by the milk fund, but when Connally refused to take it, he had put the cash away to be used for someone else's "campaign contribution." But there was a catch, Jacobsen would testify. The first batch of bills that Connally gave him were too new. They came into circulation after Jacobsen received $10,000 from the milk producers. Just before the prosecutors were scheduled to open the safe-deposit box to see if the money was there, Connally had hurriedly substituted a new stack of old bills. According to Jacobsen, he had moved very fast, finding the money in just a few hours. Naturally, the prosecutors wanted to know where Connally had come up with $10,000 in old bills in such a hurry.

Suspicion centered on a millionaire rancher named Rex Cauble, an old friend and frequent contributor to Connally's past campaigns. Connally's phone records showed a number of calls to Cauble on the day in question. Furthermore, bank and travel records showed Cauble withdrawing $7,500 and flying to Houston just as Connally was arriving there. Questioned about the bank draft by prosecutors, Cauble maintained that he had heard a female friend complain that she had never owned a Lincoln Continental. To surprise hr, he had bought her a Mark IV. Not believing this tale for a minute, the prosecutors hoped to refresh Cauble's memory and use him as a witness against Connally. "Cauble was potentially dynamite," said Tuerkheimer. But five days before the trial the Texas high-roller suddenly clammed up and refused to cooperate. There wasn't enough time to take him before a grand jury and use the leverage of a perjury indictment. S the prosecution never called him to the stand.

What had happened? A basic Williams rule was to get as many witnesses as possible under the defense tent. Usually this was accomplished by paying their lawyers (perfectly legal) or at least arranging for their representation. In this case, Williams got his old buddy William Hundley. The former Justice Department lawyer was now a criminal defense lawyer, renting space in Williams's building and taking many of his cases as referrals from his landlord. Hundley was as accommodating as ever. He told Cauble to keep his mouth shut.

Connally was deeply grateful for Cauble's silence. In 1982, Cauble, who had been appointed a Special Texas Ranger by Governor Connally and often declaimed against drugs, was convicted of smuggling 108 tons of marijuana from Mexico. Before Cauble was sentenced to prison, John Connally appeared as a character witness. He described Cauble as "a man .... who would sacrifice anything for his loyalty to his friends." Some 15 years after the Connally case, Hundley told the author, "Cauble could have sunk Connally. But Ed sent him to me."

A week before the trial, Connally noticed that the jokes had stopped in the Situation Room. Williams's easy camaraderie with his associates, the foolishness with Tigar, had given way to a kind of purposeful gloom. He was in his pretrial trance. To his friends as well he had become increasingly remote. They recognized the symptoms. "He's gone into training for the past eight weeks," Art Buchwald told Time magazine. "He's surly, he won't drink, and he won't go to parties. He's miserable."

Trial began on April Fool's Day, 1975. Sitting in the crowded courtroom, writer Larry L. King observed that Williams "appears a little glum, as if maybe his feet hurt, or he'd rather keep his next appointmnt." Williams was worried about the jury. He had tried to get the venue changed to Texas because, he argued, the massive pretrial publicity had polluted the jury pool. On the street that day, Williams had run into Spiro Agnew, who bluntly told him, "I think you are going to lose. That's not saying anything against your client--I was innocent, too--but I couldn't go to trial before a bunch of black people. They wouldn't have understood." Williams shared Agnew's fears, though never publicly. In the privacy of Judge Hart's chambers, he argued that the mostly black juries of the District of Columbia would not give Connally a fair trial. Hart was not unsympathetic, but he refused to move the case.

Williams liked to scoff at lawyers who tried to choose a jury scientifically. "I take the first 12 in the box," he told reporters. "That was a lot of B.S.," said Tigar. "He carefully chose jurors. But he used his gut. We were looking for jurors who had a stake in the process, who believed in the system." Williams had his own crude demographic rules: Stirke Scandinavians (too pro-government) and keep Irish (pro- underdog). But these were in short supply in the District. The real issue was what type of black. He used his preemptory challenges to strike "anyone who looked like a street dude or a revolutionary--anyone who might like to see a rich, white establishment type marched off in chains," observed King.

The remaining pool "looked like they could be found in a choir on Sunday mornings. Aging or aged black ladies, given to decorous dress and fruit hats and random shouts of Amen." King wrote in his notebook, "Williams will not hesitate to quote the Good Book." Williams particularly wanted one black woman who carried a Bible to court every day. He was pleased with the jury foreman, a librarian with a Ph.D. named Dennis O'Toole, who he felt confident would understand the notion of "beyond a reasonable doubt." In order to avoid flaunting Connally's wealth, he bluntly told his client to keep his gaudy, rich Texas friends out of the courtroom. For his part, Williams wore, as always, his shapeless "basic suit."

Williams did his best to play the expectations game. With reporters he went on in his usual way about the awesome power of the government overwhelming his frail and lonely client. "Doors open everywhere to the majesty of the government," he intoned. The doomsaying had some effect: The reporters covering the trial had to abandon their pool when everyone predicted a guilty verdict. Columnist William Safire noted that the Watergate prosecutors had won every case they tried before D.C. jurors, who uniformly saw prosecutors as "good guys" and Nixon as "evil." But some shrewd observers saw through Williams's game. Newsweek quoted a "long-time colleague" as saying, "Williams wouldn't take the case for himself unless he thought he could win it. If he didn't, he'd give it to some younger guy who needs the money."

The press sized up Williams against his opponent, prosecutor Tuerkheimer, and pronounced a mismatch. A New York Times profile gushingly described Williams as a "criminal trial lawyers of the calssic mold.... In a nation where the criminal trial is a native form of drama, Edward Bennett Williams may be the consummate leading man. He does not raise his voice; he aims it. He does not so much address a jury as woo it." The press noted that Tuerkheimer's most recent trial experience consisted of representing the Sierra Club in environmental cases. Tuerkheimer was brainy (Bronx High School of Science, Columbia, and New York University Law School) but utterly lacking in flair. Reporters called him "The Undertaker" and offered a $5 bounty to the first person to see him smile. The New York Times reported that he was once seen raising an eyebrow. Williams arrived in court in his Lincoln Continental. Tuerkheimer rode a bicycle.

Williams seemed oddly subdued when he stood to give his opening statement on April 3. He began by trying to inoculate the jury. "This is not a Watergate case," he stated. Connally "did not stonewall it," he said, using the Watergate term to describe Connally's otherwise unavoidable compliance with subpoenas. Williams wanted none of the drama--or stench--of Watergate to attach to the Connally case. Indeed, he was intentionally dull. He rambled on for several hours about milk price supports, baffling the jury and putting reporters to sleep. By being boring, Williams was "brilliant," Tuerkheimer later observed. "He took the sizzle out of the tape."

The "tape"--an essential accoutrement of a Watergate trial--was a recording of Connally beseeching President Nixon to raise price supports for the milk producers. The conversation had been picked up by Nixon's fatal Oval Office tape recorders on March 23, 1971. The tapes threatened Connally by bringing the recently deposed presdienet's whiny voice into the courtroom as the two pols discussed the need to placate the powerful farm lobby.

There was no mention of payoffs on the tapes, however, no "smoking gun"--at least not on the tapes the jury heard. The jury was not allowed to hear a recording of a far more damaging conversation that took place between Connally and the president. After the formal meeting on milk price supports broke up that day in March 1971, Connally had asked to speak privately with Nixon. "It's on my honor to make sure that ther's a very substantial amount of oil in Texas that will be at your discretion," the treasury secretary said. "Fine," said Nixon. "This is a cold political deal," Nixon continued. "They're very tough political operators." "And they've got it," Connally said. "They've got it," Nixon agreed. "Mr. President," Connally concluded, "I really think you made the right decision."

Within a few days the dairy lobby had coughed up a pledge of $2 million to Nixon's reelection campaign--and the administration had come out in favor of milk price supports. before trial, Tuerkheimer had strongly argued that Nixon and Connally were discussing the quid pro quo for the president's support of the milk producers. The words were coded and cryptic, but the meaning was clear in light of what was said before and what happened after. Tuerkheimer translated "oil" as Texas-speak for money. But Williams just as strongly objected to admitting the tape into evidence. The tape was of poor quality and hard ot hear. It was confusing and ultimately irrelevant, he said, since any payoffs mentioned were not for Connally but rather for Nixon. Once again, Judge Hart sided with Williams. He ruled that the tape was inadmissible.

The prosecution did have some strong circumstantial evidence--bank records supported Jacobsen's account of making and withdrawing deposits of money after his meeting with Connally. But ultimately, the case boiled down to Jacobsen's word that Connally had taken the money. it was necessary, therefore, for Williams to destroy Jacobsen as a witness.

Glove story

In many ways, Jacobsen was just like Bobby Baker, a slick and ubiquitous hanger-on to Lyndon Johnson. He had been a "high-rent valet" for LBJ, picking out the right music to play on the presidential yacht, making sure Johnson's tailor arrived on time. Jacobsen himself was always tanned and carefully groomed. He was honey-voiced, quietly smarmy. "He looks like a guy who has just had his fingernails polished," wrote The Washington Star. He wanted to be seen as a Texas wheeler-dealer but he had grown up a poor Jewish boy in New Jersey. His first name was really Emmanuel, but when he moved to Texas he changed his name to E. Jake Jacobsen; "Manny" had become "Jake." In 1973, Jacobsen went bankrupt, unable to pay $12 million in bills. The same year he was charged with defrauding a savings and loan in San Angelo. Faced with up to 35 years in jail, Jacobsen had made a deal: In exchange for leniency, he would testify against John Connally.

The spectators began lining up at 4 a.m. to see Williams cross-examine Jacobsen. Six hundred people--lawyers, law students, Watergate buffs, a smattering of the rich and famous--patiently vied for 90 seats. The press had played the cross-examination as the critical showdown of the trial, if not the most dramatic courtroom confrontation of the decade. "It was supposed to be the great face-off, the cobra versus the mongoose," wrote Mary McGrory in The Washington Star.

Williams looked "a little pale and puffy" as he paced the courtroom before Jacobsen took the stand, wrote McGrory. After getting only four hours of sleep a night for weeks, he had succumbed to the flu. Williams was chronically apprehensive before trial, but his partners had never seen him so nervous. He was so preoccupied that when spoken to, he just stared back, lost in thought.

But Williams's anxiety at the prospect of cross-examining Jacobsen was nothing compared to Jacobsen's at being questioned by Williams. A Texas Monthly article described the government's star witness "peering warily, covering almost," his mouth "tightly pinched." Larry King likened Jake to "an astonished lizard." Williams started in by leading Jacobsen to admit that he faced 35 years for fraud and conspiracy in Texas. Hadn't Jacobsen turned on his friends to save himself? Hadn't he even offered evidence against Lyndon Johnson to curry favor with the prosecutors? In a small voice, Jacobsen answered, "No." the courtroom audience stirred at the mention of the former presdient. Here, surely, came a bombshell from the Great Defender....

But the mention of Lyndon Johnson was the only drama of the day. Williams did not follow up. Rather, he merely read from Jacobsen's copious testimony to the grand jury. "It was Sominex from the spell-blinder," wrote McGrory. "Visiting lawyers dozed off, and reprters worked on crossword puzzles hidden in their notebooks."

In fact, Willimas was once again dull by design. He did not want to have a confrontational square-off against the government's witness. "There was a tremendous temptation to show off for the press," recalled Brendan Sullivan. "Instead, Ed was a bore. Jake was a terribly dangerous witness. One false step and you're dead. So before the trial, Ed said, 'I'm going to put a bridle on him.'" The "no" Jacobsen gave Williams in response to his question about LBJ was the only negative answer Jacobsen gave Williams in two days of cross-examination. Mostly, Williams later recalled. "Tedium! Because I never let him give me any answer except yes. Yes, yes, yes--all through the cross-examination, I never let him get out of control. I was slowly chipping him to death, and he knew it."

Like every move he made during the trial, Williams's methodical questioning of Jacobsen was aimed at building a foundation for closing argument. Williams had drafted notes for his summation before trial. The draft would change during the course of the trial, but it served as a road map to the evidence Williams sought to elicit. Williams disdained cross-examiners he called "truth-seekers--they just shake the Christmas tree and hope something good falls off. Usually more bad stuff comes off than good." Instead, Williams put a bridle on witnesses "so taut that all they can do is follow your lead, answering your questions, yes or no." Like a pointillist painter, Williams was putting small dots on a canvas that would, in the end, paint a devastating portrait of the witness.

Williams's mastery and control can be illustrated by his questioning of Jacobsen on the seemingly insignificant question of the gloves, specifically the rubber gloves--or gloves--that Connally wore when he gave Jacobsen $ 10,000 to put back in his safe-deposit box to conceal the crime. Was the glove beige or yellow? Jacobsen could not recall. It might have been white. Where was the glove?

JACOBSEN: I believe the rubber glove or gloves was on the side of the money, not on top of the money.

Williams pointed out that Jacobsen had testified before the grand jury that Connally wore only one glove. When did he change his mind and decide that Connally might have worn two gloves?

JACOBSEN: Between the time I testified before the grand jury and the time I testified here.

WILLIAMS: (Pause) What was it that changed your recollection?

JACOBSEN: Just the logic of it. . . .

WILLIAMS: (Another pause) It was the logic of it, is that right?

A slight edge of sarcasm had crept into Williams's voice. Yes, replied Jacobsen.

WILLIAMS: Was that because, Mr. Jacobsen, the prosecutors pointed out to you that nobody could count money with one glove on one hand and a big pile?

Having shown that Jacobsen would tailor his testimony to "logic"--or presumably anything--Williams asked Jacobsen to count the $10,000 himself. The jurors--none of whom had ever seen so much cash in their lives--were treated to the sight of a self-confessed bagman sorting through large stacks of cash, in piles of twenties, fifties, and hundreds. The impact was devastating. "Williams made Jake seem like a lowlife, sleazy and slippery," said Dennis O'Toole, the jury foreman.

Williams himself came across as "natural and easy," recalled O'Toole. Williams was always careful to seem low key and affable in the courtroom. He rarely hectored witness or showed off, and he saved his histrionics for closing arguments. "He had a human touch," said O'Toole. "His face was mobile, expressions crossed it easily. He didn't seem at all coached."

In fact, of course, Williams was completely rehearsed. He was working 12 hours a day. He ate one meal--a steak at the Palm at 5:30--and headed back home to work some more. He had a drink with his meal but no more--until Thursday night. Judge Hart did not sit on Fridays, so Williams treated Thursday night as "Saturday night," recalled Richard Keeton, the lawyer who had helped prepare Connally. Keeton remembered watching boxing movies with Williams in his basement one Thursday night after trial. After polishing off a pitcher of martinis, Williams leaped to his feet and started throwing punches at the flickering figures on his screen, looking for all the world like he was ready to rip off Jake Jacobsen's head.

Jesus saves

One day during a court recess, Williams found himself standing next to Jacobsen at a row of urinals, a vulnerable place, thinking that he would have to destroy this weak and vain man beside him. He told his children that evening that he lamented this necessity. Any man's character, he said, is fragile.

John Connally came to the stand on April 15, elegantly dressed and coiffed as always, strong-jawed and resolute. As he walked across the courtroom, he looked like "a two-million-dollar shipment of silver," wrote Larry King. Jacobsen had stared down at the floor and mumbled. Connally sat straight up and spoke crisply. Williams led him through a rapid-fire exchange, asking directly if the accusations against him were true. Did he ask Jacobsen for money? "I did not!" Connally declared, his voice ringing across the packed chamber.

Connally was, his biographer James Reston Jr. wrote, "a dream witness: coherent, succinct, immensely impressive. His denial was total and it was spoken unhesitatingly, as if from the heart." In the jury box, Foreman O'Toole believed that his task had been made simple. He had been instructed about the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." As O'Toole understood his instructions, he was not to guess at what really happened, but only to consider the evidence presented. It was the difference between truth and legal truth. Whatever the real truth, O'Toole knew when he heard Connally's testimony that he had "reasonable doubts."

Judge Hart would, Williams knew, instruct the jurors that testimony of good character could, by itself, create a reasonable doubt. Williams was eager to sow those doubts by putting on a stunning parade of character witnesses to testify for Connally. One by one, they took the stand: LBJ's widow, Lady Bird Johnson; former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; former Secretary of State Dean Rusk; presidential advisors James Rowe and Robert Strauss. They were all Democrats, speaking of "Mr. Roosevelt" and Harry, Jack, and Lyndon. No one ever mentioned Richard Nixon. Particularly effective with the mostly black jury was Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, whose husky eloquence had helped to impeach Nixon when she served on the House Judiciary Committee in the Watergate summer of 1974. (In 1968, Jordan had responded to Connally's favorite-son presidential candidacy by remarking, "Why that son of a bitch. How does he think he can be anyone's favorite anything?") Jordan agreed to appear as a character witness for Connally as a political favor for Democratic Party Chairman Bob Strauss.

Williams had been a little apprehensive about putting on another witness, Reverend Billy Graham. A white preacher and a black jury? A southern baptist? Graham's "a little flaky isn't he?" Williams asked his associates. Didn't he say that Nixon had been brainwashed in Red China?

Williams was still feeling uneasy when Graham, wearing pancake makeup and a rub-on suntan, climbed into the witness box.

"What is your work at the present time, sir?" asked Williams.

"I am an evangelist, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ all over the world," replied Graham.

From the jury box came a distinctly audible "A-a-men." It was the elderly black lady who had come to the jury voir dire carrying a Bible. Williams had to turn away from the jury to hide his smile. "I thought that 'A-a-men' was a good sign," he later dead-panned to reporters. Eugene McCarthy told Williams, "You ought to put that show on the road. You wouldn't lose a case."

Spoiled Victor

Tuerkheimer was a beaten man. His closing argument was apologetic, almost pleading. He asked the jury to "understand that this is not a contest among lawyers. It is your job to determine the facts of the case, not to decide whether Edward Bennett Williams or any of us is a better lawyer. I don't think there'd be much contest on that point. I hope you don't hold any inadequacies on our part against the government or prosecution in this case." The judge had to ask him to use a microphone so the jury could hear him.

Williams dropped his measured tone for summation. He roared and whispered and turned red in the face. He attacked Tuerkheimer: "The prosecution's case is in a shambles! A wreck!" He took a last swipe at Jacobsen: "Sordid, despicable, mendacious, noxious, heinous . . . spewing forth a litany of lies. . . ." He declared, "The words lie and liar do not flow easily from my lips. They are ugly words. . . ."

He grew solemn: "Have we reached the point in our society where scoundrels can escape their punishment if only they inculpate others? If so we should mark it well. Today it is John Connally. Tomorrow it may be you or me." As he usually did, he quoted from the Bible, likening his cross-examination of Jacobsen to the story of Susanna and the Elders in the Book of Daniel--the "first recorded cross-examination," as he put it. His final plea was straight out of 30 years of closing arguments: "I ask you to lift at last the pain and anguish, the humiliation, the ostracism and suffering, the false accusation, the innuendo, the vilification and slander for John Connally and his family. And if you do, the United States will win the day."

The jury deliberated six hours. The first vote was nine to three to acquit; by day's end, the jury was unanimous.

As Foreman O'Toole read the verdict, Williams grabbed Tigar's leg under the table. "This makes up for the last time," he said in a fierce whisper. The shame of Bobby Baker had been expunged; Williams was, in his own phrase, "numero uno" again. Nellie Connally hugged Williams; her husband thanked the jury and began discussing his political future with reporters.

That night, Williams got gloriously drunk at the victory party, held at Bob Strauss's apartment at the Watergate. Nixon's successor, President Gerald Ford, called to congratulate Connally; then Richard Nixon called. He asked to speak to Williams. "I wish you were my lawyer," he said. "It's too bad you represent the Post." Nixon invited Williams to come visit him in exile in San Clemente. williams thanked him, not pausing to inquire if Nixon had removed his name from the enemies list. Then he hung up and stumbled over to his host, the chairman of the Democratic party.

"Fuck you, Strauss," he said, "I'm representing Richard Nixon." To Tigar, he said, "You know, I should be Nixon's lawyer." Tigar, still the dissident, responded, "Ed, when was the last time you went out to try a case alone?" It was a few weeks later that Williams made his remarkable assertion that if he had been Nixon's lawyer, he would have advised him to burn the Oval Office tapes on the White House lawn.

Williams's children had never seen him so gleeful, laughing and shouting. "I can't believe it!" he exulted. People magazine came out to Williams's stately new house in Potomac and photographed him surrounded by his happy family. The magazine pronounced him "the greatest criminal lawyer of his time" and said that the Connally verdict had put to rest the doubts of "old admirers in the legal fraternity" who had wondered if "he could still win a really Big one." The magazine quoted Thomas "Tommy the Cork" Corcoran on Williams's performances. "Pure opera, boy," said the old fixer.

The inevitable posttrial blues set in after a few days. "At the end of every case like this, I feel I've shortened my life another notch," he told People. To other reporters, he hinted that he was thinking of leaving the law. "I'm going to take 60 days to canvass all the options I have open to me," he said. He was thinking of running for the U.S. Senate.

Evan Thomas is the Newsweek Washington bureau chief. This excerpt is from The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams--Legendary Trial Lawyer, Ultimate Insider, to be published this month by Simon and Schuster, copyright 1991.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:excerpt from 'The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams - Legendary Trial Lawyer, Ultimate Insider
Author:Thomas, Evan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics.
Next Article:Empire of the son; how George Bush rewrote the book on the imperial presidency.

Related Articles
New York poll finds chronic strain in lawyers' personal lives.
Persuasion: The Litigator's Art.
Lawyers on the big screen: consider whether moviegoing jurors buy a ticket for an imitation of life or a large cup of hot buttered entertainment.
Trial and Error: the Education of a Courtroom Lawyer.
v. Goliath: The Trials of David Boies.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters