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People Top 5
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- February 01, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 4
Facing Expulsion from the Senate He Loves, Harrison Williams Finds Some Unlikely Supporters
When the 62-year-old Senator from New Jersey complains of the FBI tactics in Abscam that brought about his downfall, he is warning his fellow legislators who will be his judges: It could happen to you, too. This week the Senate reconvenes, and one of its tasks will be to consider the expulsion of Harrison "Pete" Williams. He was found guilty of bribery and conspiracy last year after a federal jury watched him on videotape assuring a bogus Arab sheik that he could obtain government contracts for a titanium mine in which Williams would receive shares. If his appeal is not successful, Williams will become the first U.S. Senator since 1906 to be convicted of a crime. He has yet to be sentenced, but if his colleagues follow the Senate Ethics Committee recommendation, it will be the first time that expulsion has been imposed on a U.S. Senator since the Civil War. His friends agree it will also be the ultimate humiliation for a man who has spent 23 years in the upper house. "The Senate," Williams' first wife, Nancy, says, "was his whole life."
Until now Williams has been a very lucky man. Born to a wealthy, conservative Republican father who manufactured concrete burial vaults, Williams turned liberal Democrat and rejected the family business to win election from a state that hadn't sent a Democrat to the Senate in 22 years. Given that background, Williams and those around him found it unthinkable that his world could cave in. Before and after his trial, the Senator stoutly maintained his innocence. "Right after the verdict came in, a lot of us filed into one of the courthouse rooms," recalls a former staffer. "It was a very moving moment. Everyone spoke except Williams. He sat there silently, and all you could see was the pain in his eyes."
Apparently, that pain has overwhelmed him. Since last summer, says a friend, "Pete's become a bit unwrapped." In his troubles the longtime liberal Senator has become associated with an assortment of supporters ranging from religious fundamentalists to some for whom the word "fringe" is a charitable euphemism. Among them is the fanatic former presidential candidate of the ultraright U.S. Labor Party, Lyndon LaRouche, who believes British intelligence and Jewish bankers are responsible for the world's major problems. The Senator has expressed his "profound gratitude" for LaRouche's help. The Church of Scientology and right-wing preacher Carl McIntire have offered Williams support. "I don't really think we're seeing a different Pete Williams," says former staffer Candy Campbell. "It's more like he's cornered."
When Williams takes his case to the Senate, he will be relying on an unusual defense team. It includes Washington private detective Dick Bast, who has worked for the Church of Scientology and was once indicted on a charge of illegally selling eavesdropping equipment. (The charge was dismissed.) Robert Flynn, Williams' new lawyer, who was recommended to the beleaguered Senator by Bast, hopes to turn the proceedings into a circus. "I'm going to call witnesses to the Senate caucus room," Flynn declares. "I'm going to call former Attorney General Ben Civiletti and FBI Director William Webster to show malfeasance at the highest levels of the Department of Justice. And when this proceeding is over, the Senate will be thankful."
Flynn's ambitious plans may well come to naught. The one person likely to speak for Williams on the Senate floor is Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the only colleague who volunteered to defend him. "There's not a whole lot of sympathy for Williams," reports a Democratic Senate staffer. There is a certain sadness, though. Once chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, he brought the plight of migrant workers to national attention, worked on civil rights, and hired the handicapped for his committee staff. This is why his welcoming support from the likes of LaRouche has come as such a shock to his friends. "No one," says a man who has worked with him, "has told the real story of Williams—of how the powerful can go to pieces."
Few politicians come to Congress with more idealism than Williams. "I thought he was just an impoverished lawyer," recalls Nancy Williams, who married Pete, a Navy veteran, the same year he graduated from Columbia Law School. Like everyone else, she was taken by surprise when her husband won his first race for the House in 1953. While Williams served in Washington, she stayed home and raised five children. By 1968 the marriage was foundering. Williams' drinking had grown so heavy that his closest friends were deeply concerned. One of them, who asks for anonymity, recalls "going over to Pete and Nancy's house in Westfield, N.J. and having coffee together. Pete looked about 80 years old—horrible. I remember crying and thinking, 'Pete's gonna die.' " Says his ex-wife Nancy: "In November 1968 I drove him to a treatment center near Reading, Pa. They said he was within a few months of dying."
Williams stopped drinking and survived, but the marriage did not. "The rest of his life was as bad as his Senate work was good," says Nancy, who was divorced from the Senator in 1972 after 24 years of marriage. "I'd say nobody knows Pete too well—except me. And he knows himself least of all." Two years after the divorce Williams married his present wife, Jeanette, once a top aide on the Senate Labor Committee—and an extraverted contrast to the retiring Nancy. The new Mrs. Williams' devotion to the Senator—and his to her—is unquestioned. But those who remember the old Pete Williams are surprised by the way his life has changed since their marriage. Says longtime friend Calvin Schwartz: "Jeanette is really pretty aggressive for Pete. She had this idea Pete would be either Vice-President or even President, and nothing would stop her from doing everything possible to promote it."
As a friend puts it, Pete Williams once "wore Brooks Brothers clothes 15 years old and lived unpretentiously in a modest section of Westfield." After his remarriage Williams bought a house in Washington's showy Georgetown section. Recalls a former aide: "They had to scrape to pull the deal together." An old New Jersey friend observes: "Pete never used to go to big cocktail parties, but she made him fancy. It was Jeanette who wanted Pete to run for Governor last year, so she could be First Lady. She never used to talk to us, you know. But now, ever since Pete got into trouble she talks to us."
After Abscam broke, Jeanette Williams won some public attention in her own right—for having received more than $50,000 in fees from a company seeking a state casino license in New Jersey. According to one former aide, she complained when her husband was convicted that the trial judge was biased and that New Jersey's then Governor, Brendan Byrne, was after her husband's job. Staff members wince at Jeanette's strident remarks, even if they are motivated by loyalty. Williams' former wife says bluntly: "Now he's under somebody's thumb. If he were alone it would be a lot better." Whatever happens in the Senate, the case against Williams remains controversial. He has called Abscam "a railroad job," and any number of Senators share his disgust with FBI tactics, especially with the bureau's decision to use Mel Weinberg, a convicted swindler, to coach Williams in his dealings with the "sheik." Still, says South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler, who managed to resist Abscam's bait: "I'm afraid I'll have to vote for the expulsion of Pete Williams because the stuff on the tapes is pretty bad. It's very painful."
It is possible the Senators will choose simply to censure Williams, but he has dangerously antagonized his own party by not resigning. Thomas Kean, the Republican Governor of New Jersey who succeeded Democrat Brendan Byrne last week, will certainly appoint a fellow Republican to fill Williams' seat if he leaves. The Democrats do not welcome the prospect of their Senate minority dwindling. Moreover, as one Democratic aide puts it, "It would be political suicide to vote in favor of Williams at this point."
"The members of the Senate are not famous for their backbone," says Candy Campbell, "and I don't know how many good friends there are among the Senators. It will be really interesting to see who's on Williams' side. But for him now it's the party be damned. He's fighting for his life."
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