Archibald Cox

Watergate prosecutor fired by Nixon in the 'Saturday Night Massacre'

Nixon's firing of the Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox not only also led the top two officials in the Justice Department to resign. It turned public opinion decisively against the President, and began the erosion of Republican support on Capitol Hill that would doom him

Archibald Cox, lawyer: born Plainfield, New Jersey 17 May 1912; Lecturer in Law, Harvard University 1945-46, Professor of Law 1946-76, Carl M. Loeb University Professor 1976-84 (Emeritus); Solicitor General of the United States 1961-65; Watergate special prosecutor 1973; married 1937 Phyllis Ames (one son, two daughters); died Brooksville, Maine 29 May 2004.

If one single episode in the Watergate scandal sealed the fate of the US president Richard Nixon, it was the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 20 October 1973. Nixon's firing of the Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox not only also led the top two officials in the Justice Department to resign. It turned public opinion decisively against the President, and began the erosion of Republican support on Capitol Hill that would doom him. From that night, Nixon's own departure was inevitable.

Cox was a Harvard law professor and a former Solicitor General in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who had been appointed to his newly created Watergate job only five months earlier. Nixon detested the very idea of a special prosecutor, but had no choice, once he had sacked the Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, along with his closest White House aides, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, at the end of April.

The Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee made it clear that Elliot Richardson, Kleindienst's successor, would not be confirmed unless a prosecutor was appointed. A president already sapped by months of scandal was in no position to prevaricate.

To fill the post, Richardson turned to his old friend Archibald Cox. In public, Nixon praised the choice; privately he was aghast. "If Richardson had searched specifically for the man whom I would have least trusted to conduct so politically sensitive an investigation in an unbiased way," he later wrote, "he could not have done better than choose Archibald Cox." His aides warned him that Cox was a Kennedy stooge. Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State, who had been a colleague at Harvard, warned Nixon that "Cox will be a disaster. He has been fanatically against you all the years I've known him."

The prophecy was correct. From the start of his short tenure, Cox demanded access to documents and witnesses of every hue. Then, in July 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a White House aide, let slip at the Congressional Watergate hearings the existence of recordings of Presidential conversations in the Oval Office.

Cox quickly issued subpoenas for the tapes covering the first few days after the Watergate break-in, but the President refused to release them, citing "executive privilege". Instead, Nixon offered to compromise by making edited versions available. Cox refused and demanded the raw unexpurgated tapes; he was not out to get the President, he maintained, merely the truth. But Nixon would have none of it. On 20 October, amidst an oil crisis and a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union over the Middle East, the President ordered that his troublesome prosecutor be fired.

What followed was indeed a political slaughter. Richardson refused to dismiss Cox, and resigned. The deputy Attorney General William Ruckelhaus also refused and stepped down. Finally Robert Bork, the Solicitor General and third-ranking official in the Justice Department, did the deed.

The uproar was deafening. With his cropped hair, his trademark bow ties and three-piece suits, Cox became an instant national hero. Newspapers wrote of a coup d'état, and Nixon, who had utterly misjudged Cox's reverence for the law and the constitution, came across as a shifty and vindictive bully. The "Saturday Night Massacre" cemented the impression, on Capitol Hill as well as among the American public, that the President really did have something to hide.

Soon afterwards, Senator Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican and hitherto Nixon loyalist, warned publicly that the President's credibility had taken a blow from which it might never recover. Barely nine months later, Goldwater would lead a delegation of Republican elders to the White House to tell their President the game was up. Either he resigned, or he would be impeached.

Archibald Cox was the son of a successful copyright and trademark lawyer, and an associate member of America's East Coast establishment. There was "never a day when I wasn't going to be a lawyer," he recounted later, and liked to claim that the history of the legal profession was made up of "great cases and great lawyers in great circumstances". Roscoe Pound, the Dean of Harvard Law School where Cox studied, observed that his pupil "was capable of splitting a hair into many more parts than anyone else".

Like other scholars with that proclivity, he was, however, a less than compelling performer when he taught law, in several stints at Harvard and also at Boston University. His intellectual rigour and personal honesty were universally admired. But, as someone remarked, "there was no sparkle".

Meanwhile Kissinger's admonitions to Nixon about Cox's politics were well founded. Cox had been an adviser and speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, both in the Senate and during the 1960 White House campaign which Nixon lost.

After being sacked as Watergate prosecutor in 1973, he returned to Harvard to teach constitutional law. He was the author of several books, dealing with his early speciality of labour law, civil rights and the place of the courts in the US constitution. But his place in history was long since secure, as the prosecutor who faced down a president and upheld the rule of law.

Rupert Cornwell

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