NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former Watergate Lawyer Reflects On Her Role In The Case


At a different time in America, Jill Wine-Banks, then known as Jill Wine-Volner, was a prosecutor in the most high-profile case in America and an inspiration to many, but she couldn't wear pants in the courtroom. She was one of three assistant special prosecutors in the Watergate case that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. She has a memoir of that time and her role, "The Watergate Girl: My Fight For Truth And Justice Against A Criminal President." And Jill Wine-Banks, a Chicago lawyer for many years, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

JILL WINE-BANKS: Thank you, fellow Cub fan.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, good to know that. Look; I've tried to avoid analogies or comparisons between Watergate and the most recent impeachment, but you're entitled. Do you see any or significant differences?

WINE-BANKS: The biggest differences are the media environment. During Watergate, all the media - there were three networks and only three networks, and they all had the same facts. So it wasn't like now, where people have what we now call alternative facts, and the result of that is that we don't have any bipartisanship anymore. And the other big difference is we actually got documents and witnesses. And in this investigation, President Trump has been very successful in preventing the facts from coming out by preventing witnesses and documents.

And those are important - very important - but the similarities are great, too. The presidents have similar personalities. Both of them called the investigations witch hunts and hoaxes. You also have President Trump's lawyers saying that if the president does it, it's not illegal, which is exactly what Richard Nixon said. And so I think there are some similarities and differences that matter.

SIMON: Interesting. The continuing scene in your book - you interrogated Rose Mary Woods, President Nixon's longtime loyal secretary, who kind of took the fall for that 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes - said that she answered a telephone call while she was in the middle of transcribing a tape. She showed lawyers, including you, what became known as the Rose Mary stretch, which nowadays looks like a yoga position...

WINE-BANKS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...That she said might have caused the gap. You thought her story was ridiculous, but you kind of felt for her, too, didn't you?

WINE-BANKS: I did, particularly as I reflect back on it. It didn't happen the way she said. It could not possibly have happened the way she said. I got letters from secretaries around the country telling me it was impossible. But the pictures that were taken when we adjourned from court and went to the White House made it absolutely clear. And anyone who wants to see the picture of the Rose Mary stretch, you can either see a Herblock cartoon or you can see the actual White House photographer's picture of that. And you know it didn't happen that way, and yet, she was thrown under the bus...

SIMON: Yeah.

WINE-BANKS: ...By the man she was forever loyal to. And I've tried hard to portray her as sympathetically as I could. I was stymied at first because none of the people who knew her would talk to me. They all thought I was the enemy, whereas I felt I was just doing my job. But as a result of another NPR interview, I actually have gotten a call from her great-nephew and am in conversation with him. And I've learned some wonderful stories about her that I'm hoping to start sharing.

SIMON: Oh, that's terrific. You were doing such important work surrounded by people of high purpose, but did you, Jill Wine-Banks, often feel dismissed as a woman?

WINE-BANKS: Not by the time of Watergate - well, yeah, even during Watergate. My own team I had no problem with, but in the press, I was known as the mini-skirted lawyer. My name was always followed by what I wore in court before it said what I did in court. Leon Jaworski insisted on introducing me to his friends and fellow lawyers as the lady lawyer no matter how many times I said to him I was a trial lawyer and that I was no different than other lawyers. But statistically, back then, only about 4% of all lawyers were women, and of those 4%, almost zero were trial lawyers. So it was something that people had to get used to. I'm so thrilled now that so many women are lawyers and judges and in very important positions.

SIMON: Jill Wine-Banks, her new book "The Watergate Girl" - thanks so much for being with us.

WINE-BANKS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.