Washington — 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.
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.'
"Sometime further on, the phone rang and it was the White House operator trying to get our address, and letting us know there was a letter to be delivered. And the messenger got lost in nearby Virginia. Instead of getting there in 20 minutes as he could have, it took him more than an hour. I think when I got the letter [firing him], the first thing I said to my wife and daughter was, 'I think they at least owed it to me to send me somebody with a jacket and necktie.' That's the kind of silly remark you make in moments of emotional . . . I was much more concerned about the issues."
There is a certain irony in Cox's being fired by the solicitor general, the ultimate lawyer's lawyer, the government's principal advocate in cases before the Supreme Court. Cox himself had been solicitor general, a job he reveled in. A friend who knows him from that time is John Douglas, a partner now at the prestigious Washington law firm of Covington & Burling. Douglas was assistant attorney general under Cox. He says of the press conference Cox held after his firing:
"It was one of the most spectacular performances, one of two or three press conference ever held in this country which have had a significant effect on public opinion. One of the things he did was to express a sense of his own limitations in trying to assess all that was at stake. He didn't say it with absolute outrage, 'I was fired!' He not only conveyed a strong moral sense and purpose but did it in a non-egotistical, modest fashion that resulted, under the circumstances, in commanding much public support by being such a fair presentation." In his final statement, Cox said, "Whether we shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and, ultimately, the American people to decide."
The man whose integrity did so much to galvanize the country into demanding a full exposure of the Watergate cover-up is a low-key, laconic Yankee. Although his act of principle during Watergate was dramatic in the extreme, he himself does not cut a dramatic figure like some of the star lawyers in US history. He's rather like a character out of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" -- the stage manager, perhaps, who quietly observes the ebb and flow of life with a shrewd, compassionate eye.
In person he is an agile man with the kind of firm, faintly callused handshake that comes with chopping your own firewood. The day we talked he was wearing a circumspect darkgray and white pin stripe suit, white shirt, and Harvard crimson bow tie in a paisley design.
Archie Cox's bow ties are legend, of course, in an era when most people wear them only with evening clothes. At the height of his Watergate fame the bow ties arrived at his home in Wayland, Mass., from all over the world, gifts from admirers as far away as Nigeria, and to all those with addresses they were returned with thanks. He is scrupulous down to the last few inches of foulard. Not a whiff of profit.
His dark gray hair is clipped short, in a sort of feathery crew cut, which he habitually combs down with the earpieces of the horn-rimmed glasses he holds as he talks. The eyes are a medium, piercing blue. His skin is what the Irish call "fresh," with a look of ruddy color and the outdoors about it. His voice, which plummets and rises in conversation, is somewhere between Boston Brahmin and Down East Maine. The corners of his mouth are upturned in a faint habitual smile at life.
It is in his vintage Yankee voice that he talks about home. "Well, we live out in the country. I supose a city boy would define what we have as a farm, but I woudn't call it a farm. We do live 17 miles out of Cambridge, in Wayland. . . . We have 16 acres. I've got my peas up. I fed the horse and put it out to pasture before I got on the plane this morning. Made for an early rising, I must say."
That's the archibald Cox who loves puttering around in the garden (in Wayland or at the Coxes' other home in Maine), raising the vegetables his wife freezes to feed them through the winter. Or sawing and chopping firewood for the wood stove that heats part of their colonial-style house in which his wife was born.
Gentle though he is, Archie Cox is not a man to mess with, as Richard Nixon found out. And as he is already indicating in his new role as director of Common Cause.
The day he took office, news of the FBI's "Abscam" bribery investigation was leaked. Common Cause under his leadership lost no time sending letters to congressional leaders underlining "the urgent necessity of looking into the charges to demonstrate that Congress is concerned about its honor and integrity." In the two-year "sting" operation, FBI agents posing as Arabs passed out approximately $800,000 in bribes, allegedly implicating one senator and seven representatives.
In discussing how the news got out, he now says, "I more than question the propriety of the conduct of those who leaked the story. It's a disgrace to them , and really most unfair to the people named, to have it all leaked out at a time when they don't have their day in court. Is he satisfied with what Congress had done so far?
"I wish they had made clearer their will to deal with the questions." But he is waiting to see what the facts of the cases are and "just what interchange of timing they [members of Congress] work out with the Justice Department." And he adds that "it's important for the Department of Justice ultimately to present he case in a way that gives us the assurance that there wasn't any entrapment."
In his new role as director of Common Cause, Cox discusses what he sees as a critical issue, and one he wants to focus on: "the importance of a sense of involvement and responsibility on the part of individual citizens for moving our common enterprise, common dream, the American dream, ahead. . . . One of the most important reasons for openness in government is that of course there's a reciprocal thing, the trust of the people. A government that seeks to manipulate the people loses the confidence of the people.
"I thought one of the most striking things in Watergate was a brief filed on behalf of President Nixon in which he asserted that one of the most important things in government was executive privilege, secrecy, because part of government is 'manipulation' of the people.I thought they gave the whole game away when they included that word. . . .
"Today the problem of involvement . . . which goes with participation is still as strong or stronger than it was when John Gardner established Common Cause 10 years ago. But I think today we would put equal emphasis on the need to improve the effectiveness of government to show that it can work. . . . One of the ultimate challenges is to rebuild people's sense of confidence in the future, confidence in the ability of people to govern themselves, and to realize the society's aspirations."
One of the issues that most concerns him at Common Cause is the almost unprecedented clout of special-interest groups in Congress currently.
"At this very moment the special-interest groups have more power than they've had for quite a number of decades, probably for half a century. I think that results from a number of causes . . .," but one of main ones, he suggests, is the role of money in elections, the bete noire Common Cause has tried to slay from its beginnings.
He is concerned that despite the impact of the 1974 Campaign Finance Act which Common Cause fought so hard for, today the political-action committee is being used as handle to obtain power. Among the resulting concerns is the way special interest groups are using congressional committees "to muddle the specific problems before regulatory agencies. . . . It shows the need for public interest groups particularly like Common Cause, because what you have is a group of funeral directors or used-car dealers, groups like that, focusing on some specific thing in which they have a large, selfish stake. . . ."
As Professor Cox, he is a national authority on constitutional and labor law. In addition to being the Carl M. Loeb University Professor at Harvard, he is the author of several authoritative books in his field, written in a crisp, down-to-earth style: "Law and the National Labor Policy," "The Warren Court: Constitutional Decision as an Instrument of Reform," and "the Role of the Supreme Court in American Government."
As a law professor, he is also concerned about those who do not bring integrity to the practice of their profession, people who will lobby on one side of an issue, but tell you in private that they recognize their position is "terrible." "I had a young man last year in law school who worked for a firm of labor lawyers which was lobbying actively in the summer of 1978 against the labor reform bill. And the [law firm] partner my student was working with said, 'Of course, most of this bill in the long run is a good thing. All our clients are against it.' I find that" -- he laughs mirthlessly -- ". . . well I don't mean I'm agin it, but I find that very worrisome. I don't think the system will work if that's developed much farther."
It is clear in talking to Archibald Cox that he loves, really loves, the law, as some Navy men love the sea or pilots love the sky. It is his element, and he has been immersed in it most of his life. He comes from a family of lawyers: His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were lawyers. and there is a long legal tradition on his mother's side of the family: Her grandfather was William M. Evarts, President Andrew Johnson's chief counsel at his impeachment trial.
"I don't think it ever occurred to him not to be a lawyer," says his mother, Mrs. Archibald Cox Sr., who remembers him as ambitious from boyhood. "Even as a child he wanted to be successful. He always realized there was something ahead he was moving toward."
He grew up in Plainfield, the oldest of seven children in a large, active family with New England roots, which he felt strongly and later went back to. When he was 19 his father died. Responsibility for the family, with the youngest child two years old, matured him quickly.
Theodore Chase, who roomed with him at Harvard College, remembers that Mrs. Cox "deferred to him as head of the family." Mr. Cahse recalls that in college "he was not particularly brilliant, but in law school [Harvard Law] he started to zoom, had outstandingly high marks, made the Law Review and all the rest; it was all incipient but didn't surface till law school." But Chase notes he was "shy and introverted" in college and he thinks Cox still is under the public poise. "He's genial, pleasant, but he's not a gladhander," says Mr. Chase, a partner in the Boston law firm of Palmer & Dodge.
Erwin Griswold, the former dean of Harvard Law School, has known Mr. Cox for 40 years, Mr. Griswold, now practicing law in Washington, calls Cox "a typical New England Yankee. . . . Always able, hardworking, conscientious. I was delighted to have him on the faculty when I was there.He's not a histrionic type [of professor]. He was methodical and thorough, although not instantly popular with all the students . . . because he was not cold, but a little cool, a typical New Englander. . . . But most came to feel a great liking for him." (His class this eyar gave him a going-away bow tie.) "He's matter-of-fact, focuses on the matter at hand, and doesn't approve of small talk," says Mr. Griswold, who doesn't approve of profiles like this one.
Archie Cox met his wife, Phyllis, after a football game when he was a second-year law student.
"He just sort of spotted me and followed me out the door, and that was it," she says. They have been married 43 years as of this month. Happily. She says of the husband whom she is reluctant to talk about and admires so, "He was born to try and make life a little bit better for his fellow man. He has great hope. When others are wringing their hands, where anyone else will give up he still keeps hanging on. He inches along, inches on his way, upward." She calls him both a gentleman and a gentleman. "I think of him as being so perfect, it's hard for me to talk about him. He's so good. If he has a flaw, it's that he doesn't care for rhubarb or creamed carrots."
They have three children, two daughters and a son, and six grandchildren. Mrs. Cox, who has a lively, independent mind of her own, has taught school and says, "I never wanted to take a back seat to him, but I loved being his support and help when he came home at night."
The teaching to which he's devoted so much of his life may be drawing to a close as he nears the Harvard retirement age and moves into other areas, like Common Cause. He is asked if as a teacher he's anything like the awesome curmudgeon of a law professor in the film "The Paper Chase."
He laughs. "I can't believe I'm that awesome, either, although I've heard people say, 'You don't know how awesome you are.' One of the unfortunate things in the sense of all the Watergate recognition was, it gives you a good feeling, but nevertheless in one sense it makes you awesome. And that's rather a shame. On the other hand, I must say I don't think of myself as anyone who'd strike terror in students' hearts, but maybe students would say the opposite." (Apparently not, because it was Cox who acted as the effective mediator between students and the administration during campus strife over the Vietnam war.) "I've enormously enjoyed teaching," he admits. "I suppose because of the enthusiasm of many students and the idealism of many students and the intellectual excitement. And one dogs get a real sense of satisfaction when you read of a student like [Sen.] Frank Church, who has become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, or a student who is sitting now in the US Court of Appeals. Although one of my colleagues said it's more likely they get there in spite of us than because of us." He laughs. "At least there's always that elements of doubt."
He is torn about what accomplishment he's most proud of -- he "wobbles" between the high point as being solicitor general or the Watergate years. But he is certain about the best thing those years did for him:
"What makes me feel best about them, and I'm afraid it sounds vainglorious, is the number of young people who still come up to me and say, 'You revived my faith.' I can't think of anything more important to do than that."