Archibald Cox reflects on Watergate

It was 10 years after Watergate and former special prosecutor Archibald Cox was describing his frame of mind when he took over that politically precarious post:

''I felt I had to be rigidly fair to the President,'' he said, talking to reporters the other morning. ''I tried to keep my feelings out of it. I did not want to find out that the President of the United States was engaged in such things. I wanted to find out it wasn't true.''

That's Cox's answer, in effect, to those in the Nixon camp who charged that the highly respected Boston lawyer held prejudices that made it impossible for him to perform his job in an impartial way.

So as Cox sees it, all he was trying to do was to get at the facts - and that he was fired by Nixon for being too zealous in so doing.

For the assembled reporters it seemed a rare opportunity to talk to the central figure of the Saturday Night Massacre, who is now chairman of Common Cause, and to get him to reflect on Watergate and its meanings. Some questions that were asked, together with Mr. Cox's response:

Q: The lessons to be learned?

A: There was the very old lesson: to guard against corruptive influence of power. This is a problem that the founding fathers dealt with.

We also learned that our government and our people can cope with this problem. We learned that the people are idealistic and resilient enough to put in place and reassert the old ideals and ethical standards, together with the machinery to implement them.

Watergate established the principle that the president is subject to the Constitution and laws as interpreted by an independent judiciary.

We learned that the system could work itelf clear of this immense problem. We learned the importance of the First Amendment in this process. I don't believe that any other country could have worked itself out of such a problem (since other countries don't have the First Amendment or the equivalent).

Q: The results from Watergate?

A: We did put in place a statement of ethical standards, together with reform measures.

Q: Could Watergate happen again?

A: Of course, it could happen again. Abuse of power is inherent in human nature. But reforms have made it measurably and substantially less likely to happen again.

Q: Would you provide your assessment of Nixon the man?

A: I can't. He is so complex. He was too driven in some respects. He is entitled to lasting recognition for what he did with respect to China. But he will also be remembered for disgracing the office of president.

Q: But what would keep another Nixon from becoming president -- someone who also might attempt to abuse power?

A: Any voter could think a little more about the personal qualities revealed in the candidate's life. He could have learned a good deal from looking back at Nixon's career -- beginning with his race with Helen Gahagan Douglas.

Q. Your view of how this administration has responded to Watergate?

A: I'm troubled that the present administration has not spoken out to support high ethical standards. The setting of the moral tone has been important since Teddy Roosevelt and his bully pulpit.

Q: Your view of the FBI's Abscam operation?

A: I think the Senate did the right thing. But legally there is a fine line between entrapment and what is not entrapment -- and I'm not well enough acquainted with the facts to give an opinion here. But if the government uses shabby devices to catch people, it teaches shabbiness.

Q: What do you think about all those who were imprisoned over their part in Watergate now profiting from their accounts of what happened?

A: I'm troubled by it. And I found John Dean's book most revealing and in a sense most revolting. It seems to me it tells the story of such an unprincipled young man on the make. It is also sad.

Q: What about Gordon Liddy and his speeches to college students?

A: That's the one that worries me. I have asked students ''What is the fascination?'' The answer is that they take it very seriously -- that what he is teaching is the right course.

Q: The role of the press?

A: It rightfully plays the role of a check on government

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