Statement of Archibald Cox On 25th Anniversary Of Watergate

A reprinting of the original remarks of the Watergate Special Prosecutor At News Conference On 25th Anniversary Of Watergate

It’s both a pleasure and an honor to join under the auspices of Ann McBride and Common Cause, with former Attorney General Elliot Richardson, and former counsel to Senator Ervin’s Committee, Sam Dash.

Both contributed greatly, at that time, to the uncovering and halting of abuses and so to the ultimate reforms. Both also, I can’t resist saying, are old academic friends, going back to the days before Watergate.

I agree with Ann McBride that the prime lesson of the Watergate experience is the convincing evidence it affords of the ability of the American people to come together in times when abuses of political power appear and threaten our political systems – to come together, halt the abuses and accomplish very worthwhile, although never altogether perfect, reforms.

The Watergate abuses, as you’ll all remember, ran a very wide gamut, of the burglary that took place 25 years ago today; the attempted cover up; unlawful campaign money, illustrated by the milk producers fund; to the list of illegal contributions that we knew then as Rosemary’s Baby and other forms of espionage against the press and individual citizens. And, the reforms, too, were very important, very real and very lasting.

The Federal Freedom of Information Act and the Sunshine in Government Act put an end to various kinds of government secrecy. The Ethics in Government Act, and its sundry amendments during the next years after its enactment in 1976, prevented and corrected no end of real abuses, no end of illicit money in both the executive and legislative branches of government.

And, as Ann McBride said, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 and 1976 did accomplish some very real and important reform in the financing of federal elections.

The act has not proved entirely adequate partly because the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision, and partly because of loopholes.

Perhaps the most successful provision for a decade and a half was the provision for public funding for those presidential candidates who were willing voluntarily to accept ceilings on their campaign spending. Everyone agreed, in 1976, 1980, and 1984, that the new system, the law, put an end to large campaign money abuses. Then, the gimmick that became known as soft money, or sewer money as The New York Times puts it, by which corporate contributions, measured up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and individual contributions, sometimes measured the same way, flowed to political parties and then were used to finance the advertisements of presidential candidates.

We’re threatened by an evil, which in some ways, worries me more. It seems to me it is more dangerous than even those that we know as Watergate, because it is more pervasive.

I refer here, not just to the sewer money, but to all the other streams that go to make up the torrent of election money, contributed in various forms to candidates and spent on behalf of the election of candidates, that threaten to corrupt or to destroy our entire political system. It corrupts because frankly while we talk about buying access and influence, in the end what is sold is favorable action and votes. It threatens to destroy our present political system, the confidence of the people in government, because people are overwhelmingly persuaded today that their elected representatives and other elected officials really aren’t concerned with the common good, as James Madison put it, but are concerned with raising more money and getting reelected through the expenditure of that money.

Pending before Congress at the present time is the bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill. It would end the evil of soft money. It would save an otherwise endangered post-Watergate reform, the public financing of the general election for president.

The bill has other strong points. It offers candidates various advantages who are willing to agree to limit their expenditures, thus making it possible for people who couldn’t otherwise afford it, to run for office, and encourages other people to limit their campaign expenditures within reason. It closes other loopholes, most notably the technical definitions that draw a line between expenditures in support of genuine substantive issues on one side and expenditures that really go to promote a candidate – that pretend to be issue ads – on the other side.

An additional advantage, it limits PAC contributions, thereby limiting their effect on the political system.

McCain-Feingold isn’t a perfect measure. But it should be enacted in this present Congress. I emphasize that.

I am confident that it will be enacted as soon as the deep underlying feeling of the American people, their opposition to the money mad politics of today, becomes focused into a loud and clear expression. That’s the primary reason that I’m here this morning. That’s the reason why I support Project Independence, and the reason why I am glad to add my name to the hundreds of thousands – and will be more than a million – signatures appealing for immediate action in this regard.

McCain-Feingold, like the best of the Watergate reforms, is bipartisan. And that’s the way to do it. I say it isn’t perfect. There will be other necessary reforms, both substantive and institutional. I say institutional having in mind the need to reform the makeup and procedure of the Federal Election Commission.

The great characteristic of the American people, as I’ve said before, is when their system of government under the Constitution and rule of law, is challenged, the American people have the ability to come together, and insist upon change. Watergate is one illustration.

I’m confident that the people still have that capacity today. And, sooner or later they will exert it. And, the sooner they exert it the better for us all. Thank you.