Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox dies at age 92

Refusal to curtail probe led Nixon to order firing

May 31, 2004|By Claudia Luther | Claudia Luther,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor who demanded that President Richard M. Nixon turn over his secretly recorded White House tapes, prompting Mr. Nixon to order Mr. Cox fired and setting in motion a constitutional crisis that led to Mr. Nixon's resignation in the face of impeachment, died Saturday. He was 92.

Mr. Cox, a highly respected Harvard law professor who held several high government posts and retired in 1992 as chairman of Common Cause, died at his home in Brooksville, Maine, said his daughter Phyllis Cox.

He was the second leading figure from the Watergate era to die Saturday. Sam Dash, a counsel in the Watergate hearings, died in Washington. He was 79.

Mr. Cox will be remembered by history as the catalyst of the "Saturday night massacre" - instantly named because two top Justice Department officials resigned rather than carry out Mr. Nixon's order to fire Mr. Cox when he would not curtail his Watergate probe.

By the time Solicitor General Robert H. Bork carried out the order, the country was up in arms, and Mr. Nixon was facing enormous public outrage.

The historic sequence of events began on June 17, 1972, when a break-in to the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington was interrupted by police. One of the five men arrested had ties to Mr. Nixon's re-election committee as well as to the Republican National Committee.

After nearly a year of mounting concern over possible White House involvement in a cover-up, Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson picked Mr. Cox to investigate charges that the White House was linked to what Mr. Nixon's press secretary had called a "third-rate burglary."

Because of the political sensitivity of the task, Mr. Richardson assured Mr. Cox and the Senate that the special prosecutor would be independent and that he would not lose his job unless there were "extraordinary improprieties on his part."

Barely two months later, a deputy assistant to the president revealed to a Senate committee that Mr. Nixon had secretly recorded many White House conversations, some of which could shed light on whether the administration was involved in a cover-up.

Mr. Cox issued a subpoena for several of the tapes, and the matter went to the courts.

Mr. Nixon, claiming executive privilege and the constitutional principle of separation of powers, refused to relinquish the recordings. He suggested a compromise: turning the tapes over to a third party to listen to and determine whether there was anything of substance on them regarding Watergate.

Immense pressure was put on Mr. Cox to accept this arrangement, "but his commitment was to the law, and he rejected the attempt to bypass it," the New York Times' Anthony Lewis wrote in the introduction of James Doyle's 1977 book on Watergate, Not Above the Law.

The matter came to a head Oct. 19, 1973, when Mr. Nixon told Mr. Richardson to instruct Mr. Cox "that he is to make no further attempts by judicial process to obtain tapes, notes or memoranda of presidential conversations."

The next day, Mr. Cox held a remarkable hourlong news conference at which he explained what was at stake and threatened to ask a federal court to hold Mr. Nixon in contempt.

After the news conference, the White House instructed Mr. Richardson to fire Mr. Cox. Mr. Richardson, saying he could not find Mr. Cox guilty of "extraordinary improprieties," resigned rather than follow the order. His deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, followed suit.

About 8 p.m., Mr. Cox issued a statement saying that "whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people" to decide. Soon after, a White House emissary arrived at Mr. Cox's home to tell him that Mr. Bork had fired him.

But, far beyond Mr. Cox's wildest hopes, the day's events had roused the American citizenry, which fired off 3 million messages to Congress. Congress responded with a dozen resolutions for impeachment.

Mr. Richardson later wrote that Mr. Nixon's "most damaging misjudgment was his underestimate of Cox's ability to communicate the strength of his integrity. ... Indeed, in all the annals of public service there have been few finer examples of grace under pressure."

Mr. Nixon finally released the tapes to Mr. Cox's successor, Leon Jaworski. On Aug. 9, 1974, the president resigned.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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