Archibald Cox’s legacy must not vanish

Op-ed: Cox should motivate us all to demand more from our leaders and from ourselves

Archibald Cox, who served as chairman of Common Cause’s board of directors from 1980 to 1992, died May 29 at his home in Brooksville, Maine.”Archie epitomized what one citizen could do to serve his country,” said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. “He always stood up for what was right, even challenging a President during the Watergate scandal. As Common Cause chair from 1980 to 1992, he inspired us and worked unceasingly for reform. Even after he retired as chair, Archie continued to serve on the board as chairman emeritus. He will be deeply missed.”

Below, Pingree reflects on Cox’s legacy.

Archibald Cox’s legacy must not vanish

The death of Archibald Cox marks more than the passing of the prosecutor who stood up 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.


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Statement of Archibald Cox On 25th Anniversary Of Watergate

Click here to read more on Archibald Cox from the New York Times