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Archibald Cox’s Legacy Must Not Vanish


By Chellie Pingree (President of Common Cause 2003-2007)


The death of Archibald Cox marks more than the passing of the prosecutor who stood up to President Nixon and saved our nation from a lawless White House – it is a reminder that citizenship requires courage and commitment from all of us for democracy to fulfill its promise.


Archibald Cox revered the law and our system of government, but he also understood that the system only works if men and women are willing to stand up to defend it, even at great cost to themselves.


We need heroes like Archibald Cox in Washington today. We need people who are humble but not timid, with strength of conviction but without shrillness or posturing. At a time when honesty is in short supply in the nation’s capital and partisanship seems to permeate every decision, the memories stirred by the passing of Archibald Cox should motivate us all to demand more from our leaders and from ourselves.


Cox was a man deeply committed to the law and the institutions that are the backbone of our democracy, a passion he brought to Common Cause, which he led for many years. When confronted with the dishonesty and venality of the Nixon Administration, Cox did not relish the prospect of defying the president by insisting that the president turn over secret tapes of Oval Office conversations. In his biography, Cox recalled telling his wife, Phyllis, “I can’t fight with the President of the United States. I was brought up to honor and respect the President of the United States.”


Too often today, we see government officials who seem to take a special delight in scandal to damage their enemies and achieve their ideological goals, but Cox understood that the significance of the Watergate went far beyond Richard Nixon’s political career and the partisan advantage of one party over the other.


When Cox, in his role as special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal, defied President Nixon and said he would continue to demand the incriminating White House tapes, he ended his press conference by saying, “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 roared their support for Cox in calls and letters to Congress and the White House. Former Senator Sam Ervin (D-NC) declared the nation’s response: “In volume and intensity of denunciation, this outcry of the people was without the faintest precedent in the annals of the country.”


Cox lost his job, but democracy triumphed and Cox became a hero to many. The White House handed over the tapes and appointed a new attorney general and a new special prosecutor, with absolute assurances of independence. The Watergate investigation continued and within months President Nixon resigned.


When Archibald Cox stood up to President Nixon, millions of Americans responded with an outpouring of support. A simple act of courage, of conviction, of knowing what was right, was recognized as a rare moment in history, a time to stand up for democracy.


Every American should look to the standards set by Archibald Cox as we confront the challenges to democracy today.


Pingree is president of Common Cause, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to holding power accountable and encouraging citizen participation in democracy. Cox served as on the Common Cause National Governing Board from 1976 to 2001, was Chairman of Common Cause from 1980 to 1992 and was its Chairman Emeritus.  Cox died on May 29, 2004.


Comments of Archibald Cox on the 20th Anniversary of Common Cause

Archibald cox

 Archibald Cox

"So long a time, indeed, as the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787 when stout old Ben Franklin's sedan chair was carried up the steps of Independence Hall. Sitting back, while others signed, Franklin's eyes fell upon a painting and he noted the difficulty artists have in distinguishing between a rising and setting sun. Franklin had labored for a lifetime to bring the North American colonies together. He wept as he signed. 'Now at length,' he said, referring to the painting, 'I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not a setting sun.'"


"For nigh two hundred years Americans saw a rising sun even through economic depressions and a bloody civil war. Aided by a wealth of natural resources and the industrial and technological revolutions, the enterprise launched in Philadelphia went forward primarily because Americans had a deep sense of being engaged in a unique and great American adventure in self-government, binding them all together, binding each generation not only to its parents and grandparents from whom the adventure was inherited but also to its children and to the children to whom the torch would pass. Tradition thus became both anchor and inspiration to better realization of the American dream. Citizenship, the right to participate, was a great privilege but it also carried obligations to the enterprise. The spirit resonates through a letter that John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, from Philadelphia:


'I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture ... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain'.

"Note the strong sense of personal obligation and commitment to the public good, a quality that the Framers called 'virtue.' 'I must study politics.' Note, too, the obligation to work at it: 'I must study politics.' And finally, of course, note the tremendous faith in the future--doing it for successive generations in an ongoing common adventure."


"John Gardner and his co-workers realized that the people were fast losing confidence in the great adventure because they saw themselves losing control of government through secrecy, campaign money, lack of accountability, the impermeability of the system, and worse forms of corruption. But they kept the faith and, like John Adams, had the will and courage to suit action to belief. They also pointed to the answer. After reaffirming his conviction that 'government of, by, and for the people is the most exhilarating venture man has ever undertaken,' John Gardner wrote:

'The citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable, and keep them honest. No one else can. The one condition for the rebirth of this nation is a rebirth of individual responsibility.'"

"The privilege and duty of citizen participation and conversely the power of participating citizens became the core of the Common Cause philosophy."

"Gradually a second and a third strand in the Common Cause philosophy came clear. The second was that the prime goal of the national and state organizations should be to make and keep governmental and electoral institutions and processes not only open, honest, and accountable, but responsive to the people and effective. Revival of open, honest, responsive, and effective government would rebuild confidence in the great adventure. Such systemic reform of the electoral and governmental processes would do more than other approaches to improve the outcome of legislative debates over tax laws, appropriations, and regulatory legislation."


"The third precept became: Prove the capacity of a citizens' movement by selecting and winning specific, important goals. Avoid the dispersal of enthusiasm, energy, and resources over too wide a range of public issues."


"It is often said that the people get the kind of government they deserve--meaning that in the final analysis the people can control the course of government if they care enough to do it. I suppose that the theory is logically sound but in reality even a politically alert people needs leaders to help them formulate issues, to inform them, and inspire them. Not all the leadership has ever come from office-holders and office-seekers. Remember William Lloyd Garrison and Martin Luther King. Organs of public opinion can provide both inspiration and information. They can exert tremendous influence upon both the substance and the style of political dialogue. . . But for the most part the leadership in the sphere of government must come from politicians because it is they who compete for office and the successful among them who will give or fail to give effective government."


"Now, at the end, I turn back to the beginning. Given the unsolved problems and the alienation, cynicism, and indifference, is the picture now of a rising or a setting sun?"


"The great adventure has never been easy. Thomas Jefferson had to remind his contemporaries that 'We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed."


"The adventure in democracy is part of the journey of mankind upwards from the hot, dark swamp in which our remote ancestors move. Lower than the angels but above the brute, we still blunder about in the swamp in the dark with no absolutes to guide us. A step forward. But two steps back. A false lead. But then a little progress. The skies lighten. Paths that were hidden become a little plainer. Full light of day? Perhaps not ever. But old Ben Franklin was right. It is always dawn."