This Day in Jewish History / The Lawyer Who Shaped the 20th Century

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On May 29, 2004, Samuel Dash, the American attorney who became a worldwide household name in 1973 as chief counsel for the U.S. Senate’s Watergate hearings, died at the age of 79.

Sam Dash was born in Camden, New Jersey, on February 27, 1925. Both his parents had been born in Russia, and emigrated to the United States as young children with their families in the early 20th century, fleeing anti-Semitic persecutions. The family soon moved across the river to Philadelphia, where Dash grew up. He later told an oral historian that his mother was criticized by relatives because she didn’t maintain a kosher kitchen. He grew up poor but he and his three brothers all shared a burning desire to learn: One became an architect, a second a lawyer, and the third a computer scientist. (He also had two sisters who were much younger.)  

Dash attended Philadelphia’s Central High School for gifted boys and Temple University, where he finished first in his class. In high school, he had an assignment to write something about Shakespeare, and decided to attempt something more ambitious than a mere essay. After discovering that Shakespeare had never written a work about Alexander the Great, Sam composed a five-act play on the conqueror, “in Elizabethan English, iambic pentameter, with all the Shakespearean kinds of rhymed couplets, ghost scenes in the tent, and so forth,” as he told an interviewer in 1997. Only when Dash turned 70 was his play ever staged, when his wife and daughters put on a surprise performance for him at a birthday party.

After service as a bombardier-navigator in World War II, Dash met and married Sara Goldhirsh, a former junior high school classmate, whom he encountered on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. (He realized he loved her as he watched the gusto with which she ate a lox-and-bagel brunch at an Atlantic City delicatessen.) At her urging, he applied to law school at Harvard University, enlisting a variety of Temple graduates who had attended Harvard themselves to vouch for the quality of his undergraduate school, after the admissions people at the law faculty told him his college record was not sufficient for admission.

At law school, Dash helped organize the Harvard Voluntary Student Defenders to help public defenders prepare the cases of destitute criminal defendants. He went on to teach briefly at Northwestern University law school, before taking up a position in the appellate section of the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C. in the early 1950s. In 1952, he accepted an offer to return to Philadelphia to head up the appeals department in the city district attorney’s office. Following that, he also served briefly as district attorney. 

In 1972, now in private practice, Dash visited Northern Ireland as a representative of the International League for Human Rights to investigate the events of Bloody Sunday, when British troops killed 13 unarmed Irish civilians. He wrote a scathing report of his visit, challenging the official report written by Britain’s lord chief justice, John Widgery, who had concluded that the soldiers had all fired in self-defense. After Dash wrote his report, titled “Justice Denied,” he received a call in Washington, where he also had a position at Georgetown University Law School, from a BBC reporter.

Dash recalled to an oral historian in 1998 that the reporter asked him, "'Is it true that you teach at Georgetown, a Jesuit school?’ … I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘Being a Catholic, can we give you any credibility at all?’ I said, 'I’m Jewish and Georgetown had nothing to do with my going to Northern Ireland.’ He didn’t have another question and said simply, ‘Well thank you.’"

Dash’s finest hour came in early 1973, when Senator Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, asked him toserve as chief legal counsel to the Democrats on the Senate Watergate Committee, which was appointed to investigate the events surrounding the wiretapping and break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. in June 1972. The arrest of the burglars at the office in the summer before the 1972 presidential election led to the unraveling of a substantial plot by Republican aides to President Richard Nixon to sabotage the Democratic presidential campaign with a variety of dirty tricks. The journalistic, judicial and congressional investigations of the scandal lead back to the White House itself and culminated in Nixon's in August 1974. Many of the most dramatic revelations of criminal activity took place before the Senate subcommittee headed by Ervin.

Dash described many years later how his team of 100 lawyers and researchers had access to the most advanced technology available at the time, so that they could file and access material in a digitized data base that was at their disposal in real time during the hearings, which got under way in May 1973. For example, he told an oral historian, “When I was questioning former attorney general John Mitchell about an incident, he said he couldn’t recall. Within two minutes I had a printout of a newspaper article that reminded him of the event. We looked like geniuses because we could produce evidence so fast.”

White House counsel John Dean's testimony about Nixon's in-house tape recorder was followed by a demand to have the tapes turned over to committee; the avalanche of revelations that followed left Nixon no choice but to resign.

Dash later recalled how after one difficult day of work on the subcommittee, he drove home in the middle of the night, “almost weeping because I realized that we would be exposing the president of the United States as a criminal. It was a tremendous burden.”

Following Watergate, Dash continued teaching at Georgetown University law school, where he was on the faculty for four decades. He was an expert on surveillance and unlawful searches, and also in legal ethics. In 1985, he became the first American to visit Nelson Mandela in prison, in South Africa, and he used the experience to urge the government of that country to begin negotiating with the African National Congress, and also wrote about the meeting for the New York Times. 

In the 1990s, Dash, who had helped pioneer the position of “special prosecutor” in federal law, worked for four years as “ethics counselor” to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose investigation of President Clinton’s actions led to the president’s impeachment and trial in 1998-1999. Dash resigned from Starr’s committee in 1998, after accusing him of “exceeding his mandate.”

Dash died as a result of multiple organ failure, a month short of the publication of his final book, “The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft.”

The Senate Watergate Committee in 1973.Credit: Wikipedia

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