Chicago native Jill Wine-Banks broke many barriers as an attorney in a male-dominated and often sexist arena. But perhaps her greatest battle was as a tough-questioning prosecutor in the Watergate case that helped bring an end to the presidency of Richard Nixon.
We spoke with Wine-Banks on “Chicago Tonight” earlier this year after the release of her memoir “The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President.” (Watch part two of our conversation here.)
Wine-Banks said she was initially hesitant to use the word “girl” in the title, but realized that it accurately conveyed the sexism she faced.
“Obviously it was disturbing, but it was how things were,” Wine-Banks said. “When I started practicing law, only 4% of all lawyers were women. I was an oddity in the courtroom; of the 4%, very few were in courtrooms. They were mostly doing other kinds of law, so I was unusual and I kind of got used to it.”
Wine-Banks worked for the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, and recalled the “turning point” after the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in which Nixon fired the first prosecutor appointed to the case, and his vigorous fight against releasing tapes of his White House conversations.
“We had subpoenaed them and he said no, you can’t have them, for many of the same reasons that Trump is now saying he can’t turn over things,” Wine-Banks said. “The court said no, that’s not right, you have to turn them over. Eventually he did obey the rule of law and he did turn them over. It was his undoing, because they proved beyond any doubt that he had committed crimes.”
Read an excerpt from “The Watergate Girl” below.
JOINING THE TEAM
It was nine in the morning on Friday, May 25, 1973, the start of Memorial Day weekend, with the sun blazing through my bedroom windows and the sky beyond a bright, cloudless blue. In deference to the heat and a long-planned weekend trip, I put on a cotton miniskirt in a lilac floral print, a matching scoop-necked top, and beige kitten heels. Thick humidity had turned my blond hair limp, so I hid it under a pixie-style Dynel wig. I didn’t look much like a hard-charging prosecutor, but I was neat and pulled together, ready for the most important job interview of my life.
My parents and brother, who’d flown in from Chicago the night before, were waiting downstairs in the living room with my husband, Ian Volner. We were headed to Colonial Williamsburg for a three-day holiday, but a call the previous day had added a stop on our way—at the Watergate special prosecutor’s office.
We drove for ten minutes from our town house on 20th Street to a nondescript concrete-and-glass building at 1425 K Street NW. It sat on the edge of DC’s red-light district, a tawdry grid of flophouses, neon-lit strip clubs, and dive bars, and a world away from the broad malls and stately, ornamented architecture of official Washington.
Ian parked the car, and I went inside. I took the elevator to the ninth floor and passed through security before being directed to a small office, where a dignified dark-haired man sat with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up, studying documents at a wooden desk. He was James Vorenberg, a Harvard law professor; his friend and colleague Archibald Cox, the newly appointed Watergate special prosecutor, had brought him to Washington to help assemble a staff.
Vorenberg had asked to see me on the recommendation of Charles Ruff, my boss at the US Department of Justice, where I had been hired four and a half years earlier, straight out of Columbia Law School, becoming the first female attorney in the Organized Crime and Labor Racketeering Section. While still in my twenties, I traveled the nation arguing appeals, conducting grand jury investigations, and prosecuting and winning cases against some of the wiliest criminals in America. In every proceeding, I was the only woman lawyer up against seasoned male attorneys, who were bewildered by a “girl” in their ranks and had no clue how to treat me. I responded to their confusion and outright disdain by committing myself to tireless work, impeccable preparation, and steeliness during cross-examination. The long-term payoff was an excellent record, though my first two cases resulted in mistrials, starting in Alaska where I assisted Chuck Ruff in the prosecution of the powerful local teamster boss Jesse Carr, which ended when a juror’s mother fell ill. In Boston I second-chaired the trial of the boxing promoter Sam Silverman for fixing fights and sparred—verbally—with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson, a character witness for Sam. That trial concluded with a hung jury. From there, however, I went on to win a perjury conviction against two mob hit men in San Francisco and a spate of racketeering convictions against corrupt labor leaders in Detroit.
Archibald Cox had been appointed special prosecutor a week earlier by Attorney General Elliot Richardson, but he had started work only the day before my interview. He had decided to organize the office into a legal counsel’s group and five task forces to investigate alleged
misdeeds by the Nixon White House. One task force would look at illegal activity by the “plumbers” unit created by the White House to stop leaks, such as that of the Pentagon Papers. Another would explore the “dirty tricks” used to foil Nixon’s rivals, including forging a letter under the name of Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, a candidate for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, which defamed the state’s French Canadians and hurt his candidacy. A third task force would prosecute illegal contributions to Nixon’s presidential campaign, and a fourth would consider the president’s interference in the antitrust prosecution of ITT Corporation. I was interviewing for the fifth and largest task force, the group that would investigate the Watergate cover-up and obstruction of justice.
I had heard that Cox was looking for smart, talented lawyers with good judgment, who were young and vigorous enough to endure crushingly long days and high-stakes pressure. And he needed them yesterday.
Like the rest of the nation, I’d been gripped by the Watergate scandal from the moment—less than a year earlier—when news broke of a group of men in business suits and surgical gloves, carrying fancy cameras and hundred-dollar bills, who were caught breaking into the Democratic Party’s headquarters. I’d followed the stunning reporting on the case by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of the Washington Post, with awe and a touch of wistfulness. My original ambition had been to be a journalist, and I still thought of news reporters as shining protectors of democracy. I’d been a news junkie for as long as I could remember. I majored in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and as the chapter president of my sorority, Iota Alpha Pi, I started a rotation among the freshman pledges: every night at dinner one of them had to stand up and deliver a summary of the day’s headlines.
The pioneering and glamorous TV journalist Nancy Dickerson was my idol. I met her when she spoke to the group of freshmen being honored for our achievement in campus activities. At the start of her career in the early 1950s, Dickerson had turned down a job as the women’s editor of the Washington Daily News because, as she wrote in her memoir Among Those Present, she wanted to change the world and it was impossible to do that writing “shopping and food columns.” She went on to cover Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I, too, wanted to avoid the so-called women’s pages. Before meeting her, most of the working women I knew were teachers and social workers. Dickerson made me see other possibilities.
I got the idea that a law degree would be a stepping-stone to serious journalism from a book I read for a political science class, Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. When I read on the back of the book—about a landmark case involving the rights of defendants to counsel—that Lewis had attended Harvard Law School I decided, not very logically, that law school would help me in journalism, too.
I hated my first year at Columbia Law and took a leave to try working in journalism. To some extent, I was right about law school helping me achieve that goal: I was hired to write a political newsletter and help lobby the US Congress on behalf of the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN), an anti-communist coalition representing nine nations that had come under Soviet domination after World War II. The work wasn’t as stimulating as I’d hoped—though it may have made me an indirect hire of the CIA, as funding for the ACEN came from the Free
Europe Committee, which was later revealed to be a CIA front organization. Also, I don’t like leaving anything unfinished, so after a year I decided to go back to Columbia.
On my return, I warmed to the law, at least the advocacy part of it. Though I never excelled in academic legal studies, I won the national moot court competition for best brief and thrived in a course on trial practice, where I discovered I had a talent for thinking on my feet and for organizing and building the evidence that favored my client.
Winning cases in the real world thrilled me. I loved my job at the Department of Justice. Still, when James Vorenberg called, I was very interested. Overnight, I weighed the pros and cons. The Watergate break-in could be the start of a spectacular political crime reaching all the way to the president, or it could turn out to be nothing more than an odd burglary. But even if the investigation fizzled, my participation would likely amount to no more than a minor disruption in the flow of my career, and the timing was right for making a change. For aspiring trial lawyers like me, it was common to work at the Justice Department for five years to get great courtroom experience, and then to make the transition to private practice. After five years, the law of diminishing returns kicked in. If you waited too long to join a firm, the partners would see you as overqualified to be an associate.
By morning, I’d decided. I wanted the job as an assistant Watergate special prosecutor.
* * *
I had done no more than exchange a few pleasantries with Vorenberg when he looked intently at me and said, “When can you start?”
I was puzzled. “Don’t you have any questions?” I asked. Didn’t they need someone with years of experience? I’d done only appellate work during my first year as a Justice Department lawyer, so I had just three and a half years of grand jury and trial work.
“I’ve checked your background,” Vorenberg said. “You have the winning record we want.”
“It will take me a month to transition my cases at Justice.”
Vorenberg’s tone was adamant. “We need you today. If you’re saying you need two weeks to be polite, don’t worry, I can clear you to start right away.”
Whatever qualms I had about being unprepared quickly dissipated. I’d been raised to think I could do whatever I set my mind to, and I’d learned to put aside my doubts and fears.
“I’m eager to start,” I said, rising and shaking Vorenberg’s hand.
* * *
Outside, I made my way up the street to the white sedan parked at the curb. The scorching heat no longer seemed oppressive. Though my hair was soaked under my Dynel wig and my skirt was clinging to my legs, I had a sense of lightness, of a new adventure that would lift me high.
“I’ve got a new job!” I exclaimed, as I slipped into the passenger seat next to Ian.
My father beamed from the back seat. “That’s great news!”
“Fabulous!” my mother chimed in, reaching forward to hug me.
Behind the wheel, Ian barely nodded. No kiss. No warm words of love and encouragement.
I’d grown used to my husband’s indifference. He had never shown much interest in me romantically or in my work, and I’d been unhappy since the first night of our honeymoon, maybe even earlier. Still, I had no thought of leaving him. I’d been raised to believe that marriage was forever. In my mind, if something was wrong, it was my fault, and it was my responsibility to fix it.
Had James Vorenberg witnessed this scene, he might have had doubts about my judgment. And yet the qualities that kept me tied to Ian—a fierce sense of obligation, a willingness to ignore all roadblocks, and a refusal to give up—had also fueled my success at putting criminals away.
Two weeks later, at my farewell party at the Justice Department, my colleagues gave me a beautiful red-silk-and-gilt Chinese box. Inside were three brass balls and a note that read, “Because you have more than most men.”
I never felt ballsy. I just worked hard and put up a brave, confident front.
From the book The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President by Jill Wine-Banks. Copyright © 2020 by Jill Wine-Banks. Reprinted with permission of Henry Holt and Company.