Archibald Cox (born 1912), lawyer, educator, author, labor arbitrator, and public servant, was appointed special prosecutor to investigate the Watergate political scandal in 1973. Five months later he was fired in the "Saturday Night Massacre."
Archibald Cox began an active life that took him in and out of public service on May 17, 1912, in Plainfield, New Jersey. He was one of six children born to Archibald and Frances Bruen (Perkins) Cox. He married Phyllis Ames on June 12, 1937. They had two daughters and one son.
In 1930 Cox began his long association with Harvard University, entering as an undergraduate student majoring in American history and economics and earning an A.B. degree in 1934. He attended the Harvard Law School, where he was elected to a position on the Harvard Law Review and received the LL.B. degree with honors in 1937. Thereafter, Cox was to be awarded about one dozen honorary degrees from universities in America, attesting to his distinguished career.
Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1937, he served as a law clerk for one year and became an associate with a law firm in Boston. He practiced law there for three years. In later years Cox would become a member of the American Bar Association.
As the nation prepared for its role in World War II, Cox served in the first of his many public posts beginning in 1941. He joined the staff of the National Defense Mediation Board. Shortly thereafter he took a position in the Office of the Solicitor General of the Department of Justice and later in the Department of Labor.
After the war he was appointed as a lecturer at the Harvard Law School. Within a year he was promoted to the rank of professor, becoming one of the youngest persons in the school's history to hold that rank. He stayed on to teach law, taking leaves of absence to reenter government service. From 1962 to 1965 he was a member of Harvard's board of overseers.
Cox's expertise and experience in labor relations was highlighted first with his appointment as co-chairperson of the Construction Industry Stabilization Commission in 1951 and then as chairperson of the Wage Stabilization Board in 1952. Several times throughout the decade that followed he was called upon to arbitrate nationwide labor disputes and college student rioting, to draft labor legislation, and to advise the U.S. Senate on labor matters. It was in the latter capacity that he worked with John F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts.
Having worked in Kennedy's successful 1960 Democratic presidential campaign, Cox was appointed as solicitor general of the United States. The solicitor general is the third ranking member of the Department of Justice and is responsible for supervising all the national government's legal suits before the U.S. Supreme Court. During his term of office (1961-1965), as well as in later years, Cox argued before the Supreme Court in several historic cases related to civil rights.
A major challenge faced Cox in 1973 when political scandal was confronting the White House. The "Watergate affair" developed following the break-in and electronic bugging in 1972 of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Officials working with President Richard M. Nixon and with the committee to re-elect him president had been implicated in the break-in and related political and campaign finance activities and in attempts to hinder legal prosecution. The nation was shocked and confused.
Under pressure from the public and Congress in May 1973, Nixon approved the creation of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force to investigate those responsible for any illegal political activities or cover-up. Only a person of impeccable credentials and respect could be appointed to head that task. Cox was selected. He accepted, after receiving assurances that he would have independence to investigate, even if the evidence led to the White House staff or presidential appointees. The oath of office was taken on May 25, 1973.
Cox's first tasks were to create the structure, staff, and procedures for the special force and to comb through the background events and documents. His work took an unexpected turn on July 16, 1973, when Alexander Butterfield, a former White House staff member, made a shocking disclosure before the special Senate committee which was holding its own hearings on the Watergate affair. Butterfield testified that Nixon had been secretly taping conversations in the presidential offices. Two days later Cox wrote to the president's lawyer requesting eight tapes of specific conversations relevant to the investigation. On July 23 he received the answer: No.
Immediately thereafter, Cox sought a subpoena from U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica to compel release of the tapes. Within two days the White House invoked the doctrine of executive privilege, arguing that the president was immune from judicial orders enforcing subpoenas. Cox countered the arguments with a carefully drawn brief based on rare precedents. On August 29 Sirica ordered Nixon to release the tapes to him to determine if they were covered by executive privilege. Nixon appealed the order, and on October 12 the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Sirica's action.
Nixon offered a compromise: Senator John Stennis (Democrat, Mississippi) would be asked to listen to the tapes and verify an edited written version that Nixon would submit to the grand jury and to the Senate committee. In addition, Cox was to make no further attempt to obtain tapes or other notes of presidential conversations. Cox rejected the proposal.
Attorney General Elliot Richardson was ordered by the White House to fire Cox. Having assured the Senate that Cox would be free to pursue the investigation, Richardson resigned rather than do so. Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was then given the task. He too refused to fire Cox and promptly quit his job in protest (and was simultaneously fired.) Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork, next in line and appointed acting attorney general, was so ordered. He dismissed Cox. This quick series of events on October 20, 1973 ignited popular criticism and became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."
Cox left Washington, D.C., and returned to Harvard to teach, write, practice law, and continue his public and political activities. At Harvard he served as Williston Professor of Law until 1976, as Carl M. Loeb University Professor from 1976 to 1984, and as a professor emeritus starting in 1984. He was also a visiting professor at Boston University starting in 1985.
In 1980 Cox became chairperson of Common Cause, a nationwide citizens' advocacy group, and held that position until 1992. He was also chairman of the Health Effects Institute starting in 1985. In the 1990s he was a member of the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, a nonpartisan group whose members included former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, actor Christopher Reeve, and a number of political figures from both parties, all united in urging that television networks voluntarily give free airtime to Presidential candidates. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the American Bar Foundation in 1993, Cox received that organization's Research Award.
Cox's name was often in the news in the 1980s and 1990s, not so much because of his current activities as because of his earlier role as special prosecutor. The decades following Watergate saw increased activity for special prosecutors, most notably Lawrence Walsh in the Iran-Contra hearings during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton. Cox himself wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times on December 12, 1996, in which he criticized what he described as overuse of the independent counsel and special prosecutor activities. He also made recommendations for "Curbing Special Counsels," the title of the article.
An important contributor to the fields of labor law and American justice, Cox authored or coauthored several books: Cases on Labor Law (1948, 11th edition 1981), Law and the National Labor Policy (1960), Civil Rights, the Constitution and the Courts (1967), The Warren Court (1968), The Role of the Supreme Court in American Government (1976), Freedom of Expression (1981), and The Court and the Constitution (1987.)
Further Reading on Archibald Cox
Cox lacks a published biography in book form. Interesting reading on Cox's role in the Watergate affair, with insight into his personality and style, can be found in James Doyle, Not Above the Law (1977). Doyle was appointed special assistant for public affairs of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force and worked with Cox. Cox's successor as special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, has written The Right and The Power (1976). Judge John Sirica's side of the Cox activities is found in his book To Set the Record Straight (1979). An overall report of the period is found in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the President's Men (1974).