Cates played key role in Watergate impeachment
Richard Lyman Cates, who rose from childhood years in an orphanage to become a successful Madison lawyer and played a key role in the Watergate impeachment inquiry that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, died Wednesday. He was 85.
The obituary posted by the funeral home said Cates died in Madison of natural causes. He was surrounded by his family.
In the book "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," journalist Howard Fields wrote that Cates was among the first to join the impeachment inquiry staff in November 1973, and within two weeks of reviewing evidence came to the conclusion that the president had been a participant in the Watergate coverup from the beginning.
Fields quoted Cates as saying, "We have all of these kinds of things which establish to any thinking person he's in it. Then we have explanations that don't wash and conduct that just incriminates him more. I'm a trial lawyer. I know what I can do with a certain set of facts, I know what kinds of arguments I can make, because in learning my trade, I've learned about people. I've had to."
At least one Watergate historian, Stanley Kutler, credited Cates with playing a crucial role in sifting through the evidence to provide a theory explaining the president's participation in the coverup.
Yet Cates was not without sympathy for the president, as his comments to a reporter in 1999 revealed. Reflecting on the tapes of Nixon discussing the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, Cates said, "You could tell by listening that the guy was really suffering. . . . The poor son of a gun didn't even know the arguments he could make on his own behalf because he didn't know who he was."
Born on Nov. 22, 1925, in New York City, Cates was an only child who spent almost four of his first nine years in an orphanage. His obituary on the funeral home website describes him as an urchin who played stickball in the streets and alleys of the Bronx and Queens.
Later, he was able to attend a New Hampshire prep school on a baseball scholarship and went on to receive officer training in the Marine Corps. He was about to ship out for the Pacific when World War II ended.
After the war, he cut timber, got a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College, then shoveled pig iron in a steel mill near Baltimore. On days off from the steel mill, he would go to the courthouse in Baltimore and watch the proceedings.
He attended law school at the University of Wisconsin. In 1951, the year he graduated, he married Marnie Lessig, a marriage that lasted until his death. They had five children.
Cates became a deputy district attorney in Dane County and went on to help found the Madison law firm Lawton and Cates in 1958.
"He was one of the top trial lawyers this state ever produced," said Scott Hassett, a fellow lawyer at the firm who knew Cates for more than 30 years. "He had this country lawyer, Lincolnesque demeanor and style, yet he was born within spitting distance of Yankee Stadium."
His experience ranged across most areas of law from civil to criminal. He prosecuted corrupt police officers. He served as a public defender. During the uprisings of the 1960s, he defended students and the university in different cases.
But he came to prominence in 1973 when he was appointed associate special general counsel to the House Judiciary Committee by then-chairman Peter Rodino.
He remained proud of his work, and the way the other branches of government responded to the abuse of power by the Nixon administration.
"People think of Watergate as a negative thing. It wasn't," he told the Journal Sentinel in a 2005 interview. "It was done properly and well, not like the Clinton case. . . . That was political. Ours was a judicial proceeding. We respected the integrity of the human being that we were investigating."
Despite his passion for the law, Cates found time for other interests, especially baseball. Though he had grown up watching from rooftops as the Yankees played, he became an ardent, if slightly unusual, Milwaukee Brewers fan.
A fitness fanatic, Cates would watch the baseball games at home, performing 100 sit-ups for every inning and 100 more for every Milwaukee home run, Hassett said. He played handball and softball into his 60s and would go to his cottage up north near Three Lakes to work out for six to eight hours a day, running, swimming, biking and doing sit-ups.
He and his wife also bought a farm south of Spring Green.
In 1990, Cates retired from the firm and celebrated turning 65 by walking 450 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
He remained close to his friends at the firm. Many of the lawyers he trained went on to become top-flight trial lawyers, Hassett said. Cates went to the firm's Christmas party last December.
In addition to his wife, Cates is survived by his children: Richard Cates Jr., John Cates, David Cates, Robert Cates and Christine Jendrzejewski.
A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Cress Funeral Home, 3610 Speedway Road, Madison.