When it comes to being in the most interesting place at the most interesting time, Jim Davey is the only person I’ve met who could give Forrest Gump a run for his money.
Davey has been involved in two of this country’s pivotal events: the attack on Pearl Harbor and Watergate.
Seventy-five years ago, Davey was a child living with his family at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese executed a surprise attack, launching the United States’ involvement in World War II. This week, he’s back in Hawaii with his two brothers for the attack’s 75th anniversary, visiting for what he said would be the last time.
Decades later, in the mid-’70s, Davey issued the subpoena that brought former President Richard Nixon’s White House recordings to light in the Watergate case.
His political involvement stretched into the mid-2000s, when he served as a representative in the Rhode Island legislature.
Davey, now 81, didn’t seek a second term and retired to Cary to be closer to his children and help care for his wife, Carmelita, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about 10 years ago.
When I met him in the lobby of Cary’s Preston Pointe retirement community, Davey asked if I wouldn’t mind taking the stairs instead of the elevator up to his third-floor apartment. Earlier this year, he moved out of his son’s Cary house, but not because he needs any special assistance.
“I love my children,” Davey said. “But I love my beer. I have more beer here.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because they’re not drinking it,” he said.
Davey’s apartment contains maps of Pearl Harbor and framed pieces of Watergate memorabilia. Many documents from those eras have been copied and set on his kitchen table in a neatly paperclipped packet. I ask him to start from the beginning.
Davey’s father was a Naval officer stationed at the Hawaiian base when the Japanese attacked. Davey was just 6 years old, but he has vivid memories of bombers flying low to the ground. One flew so low that he says he can still picture the face of its pilot.
He also remembers a line of pickup trucks emerging from the smoke of an oil fire, loaded with the bodies of burned sailors.
In the aftermath, Davey was assigned to load machine guns at the base in case of another attack. Five bullets, then a tracer round. Another five bullets, another tracer, and so on. Meanwhile, his older brother dug trenches behind the house, where the family could take cover if the planes returned.
The family didn’t leave the base until March 1942 – “not until they established control of the seas,” Davey said. They settled in Rhode Island.
Because of that experience, and the pride he felt in his father’s service, Davey was eager to join the military and fight in the Korean War. But his two attempts at military service, first with the Naval Reserves and then the Marines, resulted in two health-related honorable discharges.
“I told the recruiter I had asthma, but only at one time of the year,” Davey said. “He said, ‘No problem.’ But when I got down to Parris Island and got a physical, they said, ‘Out!’ ”
With a military career not in the cards, Davey went to college at the University of Rhode Island, where he studied to be an accountant.
His first job was as an auditor with the Department of Agriculture in Washington. At his wife’s urging, he pursued a law degree from Georgetown University by night. He said he was a decent student, but his auditing experience, combined with a law degree, helped him find temporary work analyzing D.C. courts for operational inefficiencies.
That study resulted in a number of recommendations, which he was hired to implement as chief deputy clerk of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. After just a year in that role, his supervisor retired, and Davey was confirmed by the court’s 15 judges as clerk.
One of the judges Davey clerked for was John Sirica, the Chief Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who was a pivotal player in the trial connected with the Watergate break-in.
“Judge Sirica wasn’t known for his judicial intellect,” Davey said. “He was called ‘Maximum John’ because he gave out tough sentences, but he was a very unassuming, quiet guy.”
But he was praised for exposing Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate burglary and for ordering him to hand over recordings of his White House conversations, ultimately leading to the president’s resignation. It was part of Davey’s duty as clerk to ensure the subpoena for those tapes was written out and delivered.
“When it came in, I knew it was going to be important,” Davey said of the case. “I didn’t know all the background, but I let my administrative assistant sign (the subpoena). I told him, ‘I think this is going to be around for a while.’ ”
That assistant’s signature sits below Davey’s printed full name – James F. Davey – on the subpoena.
As for Sirica, the former boxer-turned-judge was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1973 for his role in the Watergate trial. An inscribed copy of that issue’s cover hangs framed in Davey’s office.
Davey retired from the court at 55. His parting contribution was recommending a woman to fill his role, which Davey said was unheard of at the time. His successor was later succeeded by a black woman, another first for the court.
After I’d gotten those stories out of him, I couldn’t help but ask what he thought of today’s politics. I wondered if his presence at two of the 20th century’s most significant inflections could tell me, as someone in his early 20s, what to expect from this year’s events.
“It’s a very similar situation right now,” he said before Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. “Where in a presidential election year there’s an awful lot going wrong in the world. Both of our presidential candidates this year have problems with trustworthiness, and I’d love to see (Sirica) grill both of them.”
Davey describes himself as politically independent, and he has the voting record to back that label up. He voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, then for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. He marched for civil rights in the 1960s and served in Rhode Island’s state house as a Republican opposing public sector unions.
This election year has been so dreary that many have been tempted to disengage from it – whatever it is – altogether.
But Davey, who was thrust into some of the most trying times of the past century, has chosen again and again to remain a public servant wherever he feels needed.
On his birthday, the day before we met for a third time, he was out registering people to vote.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan