Archibald Cox: A Profile In Leadership
Commentary: Fifty years ago, if you saw a pickup truck in Harvard Law School’s parking lot, it belonged to Archie. Professor Archibald Cox, who loved his farm and his horses.
Archie was a Yankee, and born to law. His father was a noted lawyer. His great-grandfather, William Evarts, had prosecuted Jefferson Davis and defended Andrew Johnson against impeachment. Archie was a diligent and brilliant lawyer; but what makes any of this worth telling was his quiet, stubborn commitment to do right.
He fell into politics when fellow New Englander Jack Kennedy drafted him to organize professors to provide campaign ideas. In 1961, Kennedy appointed Cox Solicitor General. He argued the government’s Supreme Court cases, including “one person, one vote” and major civil rights cases.
In 1973, Richard Nixon appointed Cox - a symbol of rectitude - Special Prosecutor to investigate the Watergate mess.
I met Archie in 1978. We were friendly, though not close. Two memories: in class he suffered fools with such grace that if he called on you, and you were unprepared or hungover, and tried your best to respond meaningfully, he not only listened but might, weeks later, suddenly ask, “Mr. Goodman, regarding your point about Smith v. U.S., . . .” and offer a new insight. Also, he always kept the hour before a class free for preparation. He was Mr. Constitutional Law, but so diligent (and humble) he still prepared carefully.
A friend and classmate, Ken Gormley, knew Archie well, and later wrote a splendid biography, which I recommend. Reading it made me long for a time when more folks put principle before partisanship. In one scene, a just-retired Supreme Court Justice tells Cox that, in one recent case, he’d written an opinion deciding one way, then one deciding the other, and ultimately stayed up all night trying to get it right.
When Watergate testimony suddenly revealed that a White House taping system recorded Nixon’s Oval Office conversations for posterity, Archie demanded to hear pertinent tapes. Nixon ordered him to stop seeking the tapes. Though Archie respected the Presidency, he didn’t give up. Nixon intended Cox to resign.
Instead, Archie gave a live Saturday news conference at the National Press Club explaining why he disobeyed Nixon. Archie, his wife, and a friend walked there from the office. It was aired live by two networks, and during halftime of ABC’s football game. Archie, lacking institutional support, wondered if one man could successfully take on the President; but he did his best.
That press conference sparked the “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which Nixon ordered Attorney-General Elliott Richardson to fire Archie. Richardson, a Republican, but another Yankee with a powerful conscience, resigned. Nixon ordered Richardson’s deputy to fire Archie. He too resigned. Finally Solicitor General Robert Bork fired Cox.
Archie awakened a country. Judge John Sirica eventually ordered Nixon to produce the tapes. Nixon appealed, but the Supreme Court ruled against him, unanimously. Exit King Richard.
My favorite moment is when, as they’re walking back across Washington after that press conference, Archie suddenly wants a beer. His friend finds some in a store, but can’t get anyone’s attention. They’re all in the back, watching TV. “Come back later, man, we’re watching history here!” He realizes they’re watching Archie, and he tells them he’s right outside. They refuse money for the beer, and rush out to shake Archie’s hand.
Thanks, Archie, for setting us all a superb example.