Watergate Prosecutor Faced Down the President
Before Watergate, Cox served in government jobs as solicitor general during the Kennedy administration and as chief of the Wage Stabilization Board during the Truman administration. As solicitor general, he argued civil rights and reapportionment cases, and he helped persuade Chief Justice Earl Warren to head the commission that investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. He resigned in 1965 during the second full year of the Johnson presidency, telling friends he felt unwanted and unappreciated.
In 1952, during the Korean War, he resigned from the Wage Stabilization Board in protest against the president's overruling of a board decision that lowered a wage increase negotiated by United Mine Workers chief John L. Lewis.
He was a nationally known expert in labor and constitutional law and the author of several books in these fields, including "Law and the National Labor Policy," "The Warren Court: Constitutional Decision as an Instrument of Reform" and "The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government." After each government assignment, he returned to Harvard, where as a professor he was known for an incisive mind and clarity of expression.
His biographer, Gormley, described him as a man of "Harvard tweeds, a sharp New England profile, brisk walk, erect posture . . . [who spoke in] sentences that could be diagramed with precision."
He was the prototypical Proper Bostonian. On the night of Oct. 20, 1973, when formal notification of his dismissal as Watergate prosecutor arrived at his suburban Virginia home, Cox complained to family members that the messenger bearing the news should at the very least have been wearing a coat and tie.
At Harvard in the late 1960s, he had been assigned to keep order during a time of student unrest. The student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, praised him for "finesse and strength" but called him "aloof and evasive" as an enforcer.
Archibald Cox was born in Plainfield, N.J., into a well-to-do and well-connected family.
A great-grandfather had been a U.S. senator from New York and the lawyer who defended President Andrew Johnson at his impeachment trial. One of his uncles was Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor at the Scribners book publishing house.
After graduating from Harvard, he received a law degree magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. For a year, he was law clerk to Judge Learned Hand, the celebrated U.S. appellate jurist, then joined the blue-chip Boston law firm of Ropes, Gray, Best, Coolidge & Rugg.
He first came to Washington in 1941 to serve on the National Defense Mediation Board staff. Later, during World War II, he was in the solicitor general's office in the Justice Department, and then was an assistant to an assistant secretary of state.
He joined the Harvard Law School faculty after the war, and in 1946, at 34, was made a professor, one of the youngest at Harvard. For the next 15 years, with periodic timeouts for government jobs, he was on the Harvard faculty. In 1958 and 1959, Cox was an adviser to then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on matters involving labor legislation, and during the 1960 presidential campaign, he worked full time on Kennedy's campaign staff. On Christmas of that year, Kennedy telephoned to ask him to be solicitor general.
Five years later, he returned once again to Harvard, teaching constitutional law, which he loved. At Harvard in the spring of 1969, hundreds of students were arrested by club-swinging police after the university called for law enforcement authorities following a takeover of University Hall. Shortly thereafter, Cox was handed responsibility for the preservation of a fragile campus order.
At 61, in May 1973, he was beginning to slow down when Richardson called to ask whether he'd take the job of special Watergate prosecutor. After Watergate, he returned yet again to teaching. He was president of Common Cause, the self-styled citizens lobby, and he argued cases before the Supreme Court from time to time. He had been living year-round in Brooksville since 1999.
When Bork, the solicitor general who had fired him as Watergate prosecutor, was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to the Supreme Court, Cox steadfastly refused to take a position on the controversial nomination. "I don't think that a man who's been as personally involved in the firing as I was can separate out his personal feelings from judgments on the way other people acted," Cox said. "Those are judgments impartial people, who weren't embroiled, should make." Bork's nomination was defeated.
On June 12, 1937, Cox married Phyllis Ames. They had three children, Sarah, Archibald Jr. and Phyllis.
Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox talks with reporters at U.S. District Court in Washington, where the White House filed briefs arguing that it should not have to release Oval Office tapes to Cox and congressional investigators.
(August 1973 Photo The Washington Post)
In some editions of the Post, the May 30 obituary of Archibald Cox incorrectly said that President George H.W. Bush nominated Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bork was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.
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