Charles Ruff, the powerful Washington lawyer who represented President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and his impeachment trial, died Sunday. He was 61.
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said Clinton was told that Ruff had died after an accident at his Washington home. Details of the accident were not available.
“All of us at the White House admired Chuck for the power of his advocacy, the wisdom of his judgment and the strength of his leadership. We loved him for his generous spirit and his keen wit which he used to find humor in even the most challenging circumstances,” Clinton said in a statement issued aboard Air Force One during his return flight to Washington after his historic visit to Vietnam.
Ruff had used a wheelchair since contracting a rare tropical paralyzing disease while teaching law in Africa in the 1960s.
‘How Can I Help you, Mr. President?’
After building a career representing powerful political figures and, occasionally, their adversaries, Ruff was asked by Clinton in 1997 to become his chief legal adviser. At the time, Clinton was being investigated by independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr for possible wrongdoing in an Arkansas land deal.
The investigation, known as Whitewater because of the name of the land development scheme in which Clinton and his wife were partners, soon expanded to include his affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Starr’s investigation led to the House impeaching Clinton in December 1998 on charges that the president had lied under oath when questioned about the affair and obstructed justice.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Ruff said his decision to serve Clinton was no choice at all.
“When the president of the United States asks you to do something you don’t say, ‘Let me think about it.’ You say, ‘How can I help you, Mr. President?’”
Represented Anita Hill
Ruff represented Anita Hill in her sexual harassment accusations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. He also represented Sens. Charles Robb and John Glenn when they were embroiled in scandals and former White House aide Ira Magaziner.
As Clinton’s lawyer, he mounted a powerful defense of the president in his closing arguments to the Senate in its impeachment trial, accusing House GOP prosecutors of being more motivated by politics than what was good for the nation.
“I believe their vision to be too dark, a vision too little attuned to the needs of the people, too little sensitive to the needs of our democracy. I believe it to be a vision more focused on retribution, more designed to achieve partisan ends, more uncaring about the future we face together,” he said.
Ruff entered the realm of hardball Washington politics during the 1970s when he served as a prosecutor during the Nixon-Watergate investigation. He initially helped prosecute President Nixon’s chief fund-raisers for taking illegal campaign contributions and then took over as special prosecutor in 1975.
In one of his final duties, he looked into charges that President Ford, Nixon’s successor, had improperly used campaign funds. Ruff found no wrongdoing by Ford.
Later, as an associate deputy attorney general in the Justice Department, he helped prosecute members of Congress in the Abscam bribery case.
Ruff left the government in 1982 to join the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, where he earned his reputation for helping political leaders in legal hot water. He retuned to public service in 1995 when he accepted a huge pay cut to take on the job as chief lawyer for the District of Columbia.
That job, he said in a newspaper interview, brought with it satisfaction “that cannot be matched anyplace else in the world.”
Paralyzed in Africa
Charles Frederick Carson Ruff was born Aug 1, 1939, in Cleveland, Ohio. He received his undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College in 1960 and went on to law school at Columbia University, graduating in 1963.
Fresh out of law school he received a Ford Foundation grant to teach law in Liberia. It was there that Ruff was struck by paralysis in his legs. The cause of the affliction was never determined, but his doctors said they believed it was caused by a virus.
Ruff is survived by his wife Sue, his daughters Carin and Christy and his mother Margaret.