Archibald Cox

  • Born: May 17, 1912
  • Died: May 29, 2004
  • Location: Brooksville, Maine


Former Watergate specials prosecutor Archibald Cox appears Thursday, March 19, 1987 on Capitol Hill before a Senate Government affairs panel looking into the process of appointing independent counsels.

Watergate prosecutor dead at 92

Archibald Cox's refusal to curtail his Watergate investigation after being ordered to do so by the White House cost him his job, and opened the way for President Nixon's impeachment.

Cox, whose principled stand against what he termed "exaggerated claims of executive privilege" guaranteed him a place in the history of Watergate, died peacefully on Saturday, said his daughter, Phyllis Cox. He was 92.

Cox died at his home in Brooksville, Maine, his daughter said.

Cox, a longtime Harvard law professor, had also been an adviser to President John F. Kennedy and served him as U.S. solicitor general.

He died the same day as Sam Dash, the former chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate who became known across the nation for his televised interrogations into Nixon's secret taping system. (Full story)

Dash died at a Washington hospital at the age of 79, family members said.

In May 1973, Cox was asked to head the special prosecution force investigating charges Republican party operatives had broken into the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel prior to the 1972 presidential election.

Nixon ordered Cox fired in October 1973 for his continued efforts to obtain tape recordings made at the White House, important evidence in the investigation of the Watergate break-in and coverup.

The day before, Nixon had refused to comply with a federal appeals court order to surrender the tapes, declined to appeal to the Supreme Court and ordered Cox to drop the case. But Cox vowed to continue, saying pulling back would violate his promise to the Senate.

The firing shook the nation and became known as "The Saturday Night Massacre."

Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both refused to carry out Nixon's orders to fire Cox, resigning instead. Then-Solicitor General Robert Bork, who would 14 years later lose a Supreme Court bid after a strenuous debate over his legal theories, handled the job of firing Cox.

At his firing, Cox issued a one-sentence statement: "Whether ours shall be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people."

Former White House counsel John Dean said Cox's place in the history of Watergate is assured.

"No question, he'll always be a part of that history ... his firing was the catalyst that started the march towards impeachment," Dean said Saturday night from his home in Beverly Hills, California.

"What's remarkable is he did the right thing, he took the very principled stand."

Dean gave Senate hearing testimony that helped blow the lid off the Nixon White House, and served 127 days in jail after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.

Reflecting on the scandal years later, Cox said it was a time when "the country showed its appreciation of the ancient rule that even the highest executive must be subject to the law. And I would hope that remains as an example to be followed if a similar challenge to the law ever occurs in the future."

Nixon's move gave rise to an effort to impeach him, and he eventually had to give up the tapes. In August 1974, Nixon became the only president ever to resign office.

"During Watergate, (Cox) was a special presence in the Supreme Court -- a walking, breathing presumption that the government would win," Harvard law professor Phillip B. Heymann once said.

The firing of Cox also gave rise to the law creating independent counsels -- special prosecutors to investigate official misconduct.

Cox later said he was pleased that it was public outrage over the tapes issue that caught up with Nixon. He went on to serve as chairman of Common Cause, an organization that advocates improvement of the political system.

In 1991, he was made an honorary member of the Order of the Coif by the law school faculty. The Coif is an ancient legal order dating back to 1902 in America and several hundred years earlier in England. It honors those who have made significant contributions to the legal profession.

"Archie symbolizes the best of legal aspirations and the best of Harvard," Law Dean Robert C. Clark, said when Cox received the award.

Cox was born and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey. He graduated from Harvard in 1934 and from its law school in 1937.

An expert on labor law, Cox in 1941 accepted a position on the staff of the National Defense Mediation Board, and after two years was appointed an associate solicitor in the Department of Labor.

Cox began his many years of teaching at Harvard in 1945 and remained with the law school until he worked full time on Kennedy's presidential campaign staff. He then was named solicitor general in the new administration.

He returned to Harvard in 1965.

He is survived by his wife Phyllis Ames, and their three children, Phyllis, Sarah and Archibald Jr.