For most people old enough to recognize the name, Sam Dash is remembered for his role as chief congressional counsel during the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. For members of the legal community, Sam Dash is remembered as a vibrant teacher, rigorous scholar, and ardent advocate of fairness and justice. But while his role as a drug reformer was secondary to his primary interests, Sam Dash is also being remembered as a man who, in search of justice, came to see the drug war as pernicious and who, in some not so small ways, helped advance the cause of drug reform.
Dash, 79, died Tuesday of multiple organ failure at Washington Hospital Center. He had been ill for some time, and taught his last year of classes at Georgetown University Law School from his wheelchair.
His death marked the end of a legal career spanning five decades, one that brushed up against some of the most important moments in US and world political history. Samuel Dash was the first American to interview jailed anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. He subsequently wrote a magazine article about Mandela, publicizing his plight, and mediated discussions with the South African government that helped lead to the release of the future South African president. Dash's foreign involvement also included advising the governments of Chile, Northern Ireland, and Puerto Rico during investigations into human rights abuses.
Dash was also notable as a legal scholar. One book he authored, on the law of electronic surveillance, is credited with influencing Supreme Court decisions on the topic. Just before he died, he finished another scholarly book, "The Intruders: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures from King John to John Ashcroft," which will be published in June.
But it was Dash's work at chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee that made him a household name. After spending months doggedly questioning White House officials about the break-in at the Watergate hotel and subsequent cover-ups, Dash hit pay dirt when White House aide Alexander Butterfield revealed that the Nixon White House had an extensive taping system that included Oval Office discussions about the break-in. When Dash asked Butterfield who knew about it, he replied, "The president..." A year later, Nixon was gone.
Although Dash continued his 40-year tenure as a law professor at George Washington until his death, his last prominent public role was as ethics counselor to independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose investigation led to impeachment charges against President Clinton as well as charges that Starr held bringing down Clinton as a goal. Dash resigned that position after accusing Starr of exceeding the counsel's mandate -- and Dash should know; he helped write that law -- and for leaving impartiality behind to become an "aggressive advocate" of impeaching Clinton.
But Dash also worked quietly behind the scenes with drug reformers. He helped organize and moderated a debate on drug legalization between Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Criminal Justice Policy Foundation executive director Eric Sterling in 1989. Similarly, he moderated a daylong symposium on the drug war at Georgetown University as part of a four-part Frontline special for PBS on the topic. And in 1997, he agreed to serve as a board member of the newly reconstituted Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (VCL), modeled after an organization formed in the 1920s to combat Alcohol Prohibition. (For some history, as well as an update on the current VCL, read our interview with current VCL executive director Roger Goodman at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/243/rogergoodman.shtml online.)
"Sam Dash was no legalizer -- I debated him privately on this -- and drug reform was not one of his key issues, but his interest was the law and the tendency of government to use improper procedures to invade civil liberties," said early drug reformer Arnold Trebach, Dash's friend and neighbor as well as a fellow toiler in the fields. "Often these abuses occurred in the name of the war on drugs. That was his concern. He believed in the fair application of the law, and he thought that the court decisions on search and seizure were terrible," Trebach told DRCNet. "Sam Dash was a pillar of the law. He adored the principle of law in a free society and stood up in the face of every attempt to pervert the law."
"Sam Dash was a law professor concerned about justice," said Sterling, who is president of the current incarnation of the VCL. "He recognized how the war on drugs contributed to injustice all over the country. "Sam Dash was not a leader of the drug reform movement, but an extremely important national figure willing to lend his prestige to the drug reform movement."
One of the ways he did that, said Sterling, was by supporting the new VCL. "Northampton, Massachusetts, attorney Richard Evans had become fascinated with the role of the VCL in ending Prohibition, and a group of attorneys decided to create a new corporation of the same name," Sterling told DRCNet. "Thomas Haines of the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information (http://www.prdi.org) helped bring these folks together with some respected legal names, including former Attorney General Elliot Richardson -- and Sam Dash. Dash agreed to sit on the board."
Both Trebach and Sterling recalled personal encounters with Dash. "We lived just a few blocks apart," said Trebach, "and whenever he or his wife Sara would see me, they were always so happy. He was a man of great personal warmth. A humane, decent man."
"He was a close friend of Rufus King, a real advocate for drug reform," said Sterling. "I remember having dinner with him at Rufus' home. He was charming, but also passionate for justice and concerned about human rights."
Dash's funeral reflected the position he had achieved in life, said both men. "On the one hand, people like Bob Woodward and Watergate-era Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee were there," said Trebach. "On the other hand, there were legions of his students. They talked about how they adored him, about how he came to class in his wheelchair, and his devotion to them," said Trebach.