Archibald Cox, 1912-2004
Watergate Prosecutor Faced Down the President
By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A01
Archibald Cox, 92, the Harvard law professor and special prosecutor whose refusal to accept White House limits on his investigation of the Watergate break-in and coverup helped bring about the 1974 resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, died yesterday at his home in Brooksville, Maine.
His wife, Phyllis, said last night that she could not specify a single cause of death. "He was 92 years old, and I think he died of old age," she said.
In October 1973, Cox precipitated what would become known as the "Saturday night massacre." He did this by insisting on unrestricted access to tape recordings of presidential conversations in the Oval Office during the period immediately after five men with links to Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President had been arrested in the June 1972 break-in at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
An angry Nixon demanded Cox's firing. But Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who had recruited Cox as the Watergate special prosecutor, refused to carry out the president's order. He resigned, as did his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus. Robert H. Bork, who as solicitor general was the third-ranking officer of the Justice Department, dismissed Cox.
Almost overnight, from Capitol Hill and in the national media, came the sounds of protest and dismay. Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (Ariz.), one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, declared that Nixon's credibility "has reached an all-time low from which he may not be able to recover."
In the House of Representatives, members introduced 22 bills calling for the impeachment of the president or an investigation into impeachment proceedings. More than a million telegrams demanding impeachment poured into congressional offices.
Newspaper editorial writers and columnists made somber references to an "attempted coup d'etat." Cox appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, wearing his trademark bow tie, neatly knotted as always. Time had photos of Cox and the president facing each other over the caption, "Nixon on the Brink."
The firing of Cox, on Oct. 20, 1973, came at a time of high turbulence and political unrest. The Watergate scandal was increasingly engulfing the Nixon presidency. A summer of televised hearings on Capitol Hill had produced a steady flow of testimony suggesting burglary, lies, duplicity and criminality at the highest levels.
One witness testified that Nixon routinely tape-recorded all conversations in the Oval Office. On July 9, 1973, Cox subpoenaed nine of the tapes. The White House resisted, citing the doctrine of executive privilege. Nixon proposed that Sen. John Stennis (D-Miss.) review the tapes and verify their content to the prosecutor's office. To Cox, that was unacceptable. He wanted the raw tapes, unedited and unabridged. When he refused to back down, Nixon ordered his firing.
Cox was replaced by Leon Jaworski, who eventually got the disputed tapes, and the Watergate investigation continued. If anything, the firing of Cox increased its momentum. "The Saturday night massacre was the single event in his long and controversial political life from which Richard M. Nixon, president of the most powerful nation in the world, would never recover," wrote Ken Gormley, a Duquesne University law professor, in "Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation," a 1997 biography.
In a foreword, Elliot Richardson wrote, "Had Richard Nixon known Archie Cox . . . Nixon would have realized that his only hope of salvation lay in full disclosure." Richardson said Nixon believed that Cox, who had been associated with President John F. Kennedy, was out to get him.
"Try as I might, I could not convince Nixon or his staff that Archie would rather cut off his right arm than take any action not fully supported by the law and the facts. . . . In the end Nixon's most damaging misjudgment was his underestimation of Cox's ability to communicate the strength of his integrity."
At a Saturday afternoon news conference hours before he was fired, Cox insisted: "I'm certainly not out to get the president of the United States. . . . I decided I had to try to stick by what I thought was right." In a formal statement after his dismissal, he said simply that "whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for the Congress and, ultimately, the American people to decide."
He would later observe that "one of the important lessons of Watergate was that unless the government trusts the people and conducts itself in an honorable fashion, then the people won't trust the government. . . . The long-range aim of the Watergate investigation and prosecution was to show that the government could cleanse itself and be put in a shape that the people could trust."
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