Aside from his involvement with the 1973 Watergate prosecution, Cox held several influential government posts during his life, including solicitor general under President John F. Kennedy ’40.
Cox joined the HLS faculty as a visiting lecturer in 1945 and a year later became one of the youngest professors to receive tenure, at age 34.
During his teaching career at Harvard, he served as Royall professor of law, the oldest endowed chair at HLS, Williston professor of law and Loeb University professor. An expert in torts, administrative law and constitutional law, Cox retired in 1984.
“Archibald Cox was a man of unwavering principle and one of the great law professors of his time,” University President Lawrence H. Summers wrote in a statement.
“His reputation for integrity and fairness led to his playing a pivotal role in one of the most turbulent episodes in the nation’s political history. His many colleagues, students, friends, and admirers in the Harvard community join in mourning his loss and remembering his extraordinary life,” Summers wrote.
In May 1973, Cox was appointed by Elliot L. Richardson ’41, a former student of Cox’s and Nixon’s attorney general, to lead the Justice Department’s investigation into charges that the Republican party had orchestrated a break-in at Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Five men, one of whom had ties to Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President and the Republican National Committee, were arrested on June 17, 1972 during a burglary attempt at the hotel.
Over the next two years, investigations by Congress and the media, most notably the Washington Post, exposed the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover up the burglary and sabotage the Democrats’ presidential campaign.
As the special prosecutor, Cox pressured Nixon to turn over newly discovered audiotapes of secretly recorded presidential conversations in the Oval Office.
Nixon refused, claiming executive privilege and the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
Cox persisted. He issued a subpoena for several of the tapes, which ultimately proved that the Nixon White House had been involved in a conspiracy to conceal its role in authorizing the Watergate break-in.
A federal appeals court ordered Nixon to surrender the tapes. Instead of appealing to the Supreme Court, Nixon proposed that Sen. John C. Stennis, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, screen the tapes to determine if the content was relevant to Cox’s investigation.
But Cox would not compromise, despite the “political war-like atmosphere,” said Ames Professor of Law Philip B. Heymann.
Heymann, who worked under Cox for the prosecution, said Washington was heavily divided about whether Nixon was guilty of any wrongdoing.
“There was a sense that what we were doing was extremely dangerous to the Nixon administration,” Heymann told The Crimson last week.
Despite accusations that Cox, a registered Democrat, was out to get Nixon, Heymann said Cox had a “strong sense of duty” and always followed his conscience.
“Cox was not partial,” Heymann said. “It was a job that had to be done for the nation.”
Surprisingly, Cox had no experience as a prosecutor in a criminal law case before Watergate, Heymann said.
“He was a law professor. This was a very different world and everybody’s eyes were on him,” Heymann said.
According to Heymann, Richardson’s appointment of Cox “led the Democrats who hated Nixon and feared Nixon to be very much afraid that [the man] Richardson had appointed was too unprepared for the rough and tumble of Nixon’s Washington” and that he would not be capable of “satisfactorily investigating all of the issues that came up.”
“They were wrong about that,” Heymann said, “and Nixon was wrong about that.”
On Oct. 20, 1973, when it had become clear that Nixon would not obey the court order to relinquish the tapes, Cox threatened to ask a federal court to hold Nixon in contempt.
Later that day, in a string of events that would become known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” Nixon instructed Richardson to dismiss Cox.
Citing his promise to the Judiciary Committee that Cox would keep his job unless he was guilty of “extraordinary improprieties,” Richardson resigned. William D. Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general, also resigned rather than follow Nixon’s command.
Shortly before Cox was finally dismissed by Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, he issued a one-line statement: “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
The American people responded by sending millions of telegrams and letters to Congress, which, in turn, drafted several resolutions for impeachment.
Nixon eventually released the tapes to Cox’s successor, Leon Jaworski. The content of the tapes and the full results of Cox’s investigation were so damaging that Nixon stepped down as president on Aug. 8, 1974, becoming the only American president to resign from office. Cox was immediately embraced as a hero by Nixon’s foes.
“With Watergate, he became a symbol of lawyers at their best,” Heymann said. “He became the symbol of the person who had the combination of the highest ethical standards and the courage to live by them.”
Heymann added, “People felt like he saved the country.”
Archibald Cox Jr. was born on May 17, 1912 in Plainfield, N.J. The oldest of seven children, Cox attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H.
He studied economics and American history at Harvard and attended HLS, graduating magna cum laude in 1937.
Cox’s father, Archibald Cox, was a patent lawyer, and his mother’s grandfather, William M. Evarts, defended President Andrew Johnson during impeachment proceedings in 1868, according to Ken Gormley’s 1997 biography, Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation.
Cox began his own legal career as a law clerk to New York appellate court Judge Learned Hand. He then spent three years as an associate at the Boston law firm Ropes, Gray, Best, Coolidge and Rugg.
In 1941, four years before he would become a lecturer at HLS, Cox joined the National Defense Mediation Board in Washington, D.C. He would later serve as associate solicitor in the Department of Labor.
Cox, who sported a crew-cut hairstyle and thin bowties, was revered for his dedication as an HLS professor. Some students found his classroom presence uninspiring, but Heymann, who took a labor law class from Cox, said he was “purposefully uncharismatic.”
“He never wanted the attention to be on him as a person,” Heymann said. “He wanted it to be on the job he had to do or the labor law he was teaching.”
Heymann said Cox never went out of his way to be a “showman,” not even with the high-profile Watergate proceedings.
“In a relaxed way he was very aware of his responsibilities,” Heymann said. In fact, Heymann said, Cox brought the examinations from his HLS class along with him to Washington to grade while he conducted his investigation.
Cox left HLS several times to fill government posts, but he always returned.
During President Harry S. Truman’s administration, Cox headed the Wage Stabilization Board for a time but quit when Truman rejected a restricted wage increase proposal.
He led the “Cambridge Group,” an association of professors who advised John F. Kennedy on political issues when Kennedy was a Mass. senator considering a run for the presidency.
When Kennedy was elected to that office in 1960, he appointed Cox to be solicitor general, the third highest position in the Department of Justice and the chief advocate of the U.S. government before the Supreme Court.
As solicitor general, Heymann said, Cox argued “more very important constitutional law cases than anyone in the second half of the 20th century.”
“He wrote the voting rights statute, which sort of created equal voting rights in the United States; he argued Buckley v. Valeo, which set the rules for campaign finance,” said Heymann.
And, Heymann added, “he won with considerable regularity.”
Cox was a skilled oral advocate, and “people would come from all over to watch him argue a case because he did it so well,” Heymann said.
Cox returned to HLS in 1966. Over the next several tumultuous years, Cox oversaw the University’s response to student protesters who opposed the Vietnam war.
During the occupation of the Architectural Technology Workshop on Memorial Drive, The Crimson published a March 12, 1971 news article characterizing Cox as the “nation’s leading confrontation expert.”
“He first made his name as a University strategist when he headed the blue-ribbon panel appointed by the Columbia administration to investigate the causes of the massive student strike which paralyzed that university in April of 1968,” the article stated.
After Cox was fired as the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973, he taught constitutional law at HLS. Cox also served on the faculty at Boston University Law School and wrote several books, including Law and the National Labor Policy, Civil Rights, the Constitution and the Courts, Freedom of Expression, and The Court and the Constitution.
In 1980, Cox became chair of Common Cause, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. The HLS faculty made Cox an honorary member of the Order of the Coif, an historic group that recognizes significant contributions to the legal profession, in 1991.
At an October 2003 ceremony at HLS, Cox witnessed the unveiling of his portrait, which now hangs in Pound Hall.
Robert H. Mnookin ’64, who is Williston professor of law—a chair Cox once held—said of his predecessor at the event, “I think he certainly represents the ideals that we at HLS should aspire to—gifted, public-spirited, extremely hard-working and idealistic in a pragmatic way.”
Heymann told The Crimson the University administration would often call on Cox, “the nation’s role model of honor,” to offer his opinion on certain matters.
“When there was a very tough decision, the president, especially [then-University President] Derek C. Bok, would bring Archie in because he wanted his judgment,” Heymann said. “He knew it would be fair and very intelligent.”
Above all, Heymann said, Cox was a man of the highest character.
“Once he decided something was the right thing to do,” he said, “then he would just do it. It didn’t occur to him that he was doing something special.”
Cox is survived by his wife Phyllis Ames; two daughters, Phyllis, of Denver, Colo. and Sarah, of Brooksville, Me.; a son, Archibald Jr., of Markleville, Ind.; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
—Staff writer Andrew C. Esensten can be reached at email@example.com.