After being turned down by his eight previous choices, Attorney General Elliot Richardson offered his former Harvard Law School professor, Archibald Cox, the position of Watergate Special Prosecutor. Assured he could act independently, with White House cooperation, and be dismissed only for extraordinary improprieties, Cox accepted.
Less than two months following his appointment in May 1973, Cox learned with the rest of America of Nixon’s secret tapes. Over the next few months, Cox, the Senate Watergate committee, and Judge John Sirica battled with the White House over those tapes. During that fight, after Sirica ordered Nixon to comply with the committee and Cox’s demand, Cox offered the president a compromise. The White House could prepare transcripts of the subpoenaed tapes, omitting sections it deemed outside the interest of the investigators. A third party would review the tapes and the transcripts. Once in agreement with the White House, this arbiter would deliver the transcripts to Cox and the grand jury. Nixon refused the offer, but his hand was forced when a federal court upheld Judge Sirica’s order.
Weakened by the decision, Nixon offered Cox his own compromise. The White House would prepare transcripts, and a man of Nixon’s choosing would confirm their legitimacy. In exchange, Cox would agree to call for no more evidence. Nixon was distrustful of Cox and his many Democratic ties, especially to the Kennedys. Cox had served as an advisor to Congressman John Kennedy and as his solicitor general during Kennedy’s presidency. But sterner stuff than partisanship animated Cox, whose family tree was anchored by Roger Sherman, the “Mount Atlas” of the Founding Fathers. Indeed, Cox’s childhood was rich with stories of his great grandfather, William Maxwell Evarts, whose impassioned defense of Andrew Johnson in 1868 saved the impeached president in his Senate trial. Cox rejected Nixon’s overture on Saturday, October 20.
That day, Nixon fired the special prosecutor and, in so doing, lost his attorney general and assistant attorney general, both of whom resigned in protest. Cox issued a terse, one-sentence response when he learned of his dismissal. Picking up on a phrase made famous by John Adams, he said, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now before Congress and ultimately the American people.” The following Monday, outraged members of Congress introduced twenty-two separate resolutions calling for Nixon’s impeachment, testing Cox’s contention.