When President Richard Nixon resigned this day in 1974, he stood atop the largest case of political corruption in national history. I once had the privilege to meet Archibald Cox, the man who fought the White House and delved into the whole debacle.
To explain the entire Watergate scandal in a blog would be ridiculously inadequate and earn me the scorn of my old professors. Suffice to say, it began in 1972 with a group of political operatives who smashed into Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., tossed the office and wiretapped the phones. Investigations by the Washington Post and Congress unveiled a bizarre web of accomplices that crept up the political food chain. It was Archibald Cox, a former solicitor general, who was appointed as special prosecutor to explore the controversy.
Cox went after a collection of taped conversations between Nixon and his staff. Despite his subpoenas and an order from a U.S. District judge, the White House evaded him. When Cox refused a compromise from the Oval Office, a written summary instead of tapes, Nixon ordered the U.S. Attorney General to sack him. Attorney General Richardson refused and resigned. Succeeding A.G. Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. It was left to solicitor general Robert Bork who ultimately carried out the command. These chaotic events at the Justice Department were collectively termed the “Saturday Night Massacre”. Cox’s own successor pursued the lower ranks of the conspiracy and Supreme Court actions eventually released the tapes. Richard Nixon announced his resignation three days after official transcripts came into the sunlight.
Archibald Cox spoke at my college in the late Nineties. As a campus reporter and a student interested in history, I was very excited to see him. Our college president gave a lukewarm introduction, but Cox deserved better. His legal background was simply illustrious. I still have a photo of the lawyer speaking to the crowd: his hands thrust in his pockets, straight posture, and a calm and steady bearing. Cox was used to speaking in courtrooms, in front of TV cameras, in chambers full of powerful people. He spoke of his father telling him about obedience to national authority, even though it conflicted with his role as special prosecutor: “When the President tells you to do something, you do it.”
I remember fumbling with my notepad and asking him a few questions about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I can’t remember his response. But I’m sure he knew better: there are scandals, and then there are conspiracies. There was certainly a difference. He was experienced and dignified and a national servant of the highest caliber.