In Plainfield, N.J., when Archibald Cox was a little boy, not more than 7 or 8, he had to walk half a mile to school through a gantlet of tough kids. They were known as "the canyon kids." And most of them were bigger than he. His mother remembers that "he was scared to death" until he decided he'd be Sir Lancelot fighting his enemies. "And he beat them up." That was the end of the trouble, then. But as his mother says, "That's sort of what he was doing at Watergate," too.Skip to next paragraph
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Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, became a national hero when he was fired by President Nixon for pursuing his investigation of the criminal misconduct in the executive offices of the President. Now Mr. Cox has quietly strapped on his armor again, becoming a Yankee Lancelot at Common Cuase, the citizens' lobby.
He is sitting in his Spartan director's office at Common Cause, a small white room overlooking a parking lot. It is just big enough to hold a regulation brown wood desk, swivel chair, and his own 6-foot, 2 1/2-inch frame. There is a brown leather attache case on the desk, a green plant on the windowsill, a calendar on the wall. That's it.
Mr. Cox doesn't flaunt the red badge of courage. In fact, he doesn't like to talk about it much, and doesn't see his unflinching stand for principle during Watergate in terms of courage. He explains instead:
"I was brought up, if there was a job to do, to do it. I mean the President [Nixon] made it very easy. The President said I wasn't to go back to court again. And I had told the Senate Judiciary Committee and the country that I would go to court. Well, I certainly grew up believing that when you said somepin', that you stick to it."
What was his reaction when the tax fell?
"My chief concern was whether he [Nixon] would be successful in disobeying the order to turn over the tapes. And along with that went great concern for what was the right way to proceed with the American people, what I conceived to be of enourmous importance to their liberty in the long run, of insisting that the executive must comply with the law as established by the courts. I think that clearly was the dominant concern in my mind."
But wasn't there also a personal, a visceral reaction -- perhaps shock, anger , dismay? He pauses for a moment, the explains patiently, as the Harvard law professor he is, to a perhaps dim student:
"I think I am accurately recalling, but to go back. . . . In the latter part of August, there had begun to be stories about how the President was going to fire me. . . . Certainly all through the preceding week it had been clear that things were probably approaching a crisis. . . . So I think in terms of the dominating thought, where there were also a lot of emotions, tensions that go mixed up in my mind at the time. I didn't find it comfortable or pleasant, and indeed it wasn't without misgivings that I found myself in confrontation with the President of the United States.
"I grew up respecting and admiring the office, whoever had it, and that added to all the emotions at the time. But I guess I knew I was going to be fired. . . . And I know I went out of my way to make it plain to Elliot Richardson [then attorney general], if it needed making plain, that only the attorney general had the power to fire me. The President couldn't fire me. Because I would have given very strong odds that Elliot would never do the job, never fire me, never do the dirty work. . . . And then Elliot called me, I guess after the end of the press conference, and told me, 'I've resigned; Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus has resigned; you're going to be fired by the solicitor general, Robert H. Bork.'