Memorial service for Archibald Cox ’37 evokes integrity, exemplary moral courage

Archibald Cox

For many Americans, the late Archibald Cox ’37 is known for his role as solicitor general during the Kennedy administration and even more as Watergate special prosecutor in 1973. But as former Harvard President Derek Bok ’54 noted at a memorial service in October, Cox’s example in Watergate was not an isolated act of moral courage, just the most visible. Cox’s sense of integrity and responsibility defined his public service and his work as a labor law and constitutional law scholar, chairman of the Wage Stabilization Board in 1952, arbitrator of labor disputes, negotiator with student dissidents in the 1960s and chairman of Common Cause. Cox, who died last May at age 92, was also a husband to Phyllis Cox for almost 67 years and a father to their three children: Sarah, Archibald Jr. and Phyllis. Below are excerpts from remarks made at Memorial Church in Cambridge at the service in Cox’s memory on Oct. 8, 2004.

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Archie Cox played a major role in my life, as I suspect he did in the lives of many people who didn’t know him. I was 13 when the Watergate scandal broke, and I became obsessed with it in the way that only 13-year-olds can become obsessed with things. I knew in painstaking detail all about what Archie Cox had done and what he had refused to do in the Watergate investigation. … It’s easy to say in hindsight that in his dispute with President Nixon, Archie Cox had right on his side, but I’ve worked for a president, and I think it couldn’t have been so easy for Archie at the time. Or at least it wouldn’t have been so easy for me to defy a president and to lose, in that way, a prominent job. When Archie did that, when he demonstrated that kind of ramrod principle, when he said that he wouldn’t back down from what he knew was right, even in the face of power and pressure, he taught me and so many others the single most important lesson for any lawyer.

–Elena Kagan ’86, dean of Harvard Law School and deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Clinton White House

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In all matters, the question for Archie was clear: What is the right thing to do? Whatever the cost, the answer to that question dictated his conscience. In all things in his long and distinguished career, Archie manifested these qualities of integrity and responsibility. He demonstrated to all who would observe that, as Holmes said, one “may live greatly in the law as well as elsewhere.”

–Clark Byse, Harvard Law School professor emeritus

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In the august days before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Archie might well have been busy marshaling political support, he did not. And not having marshaled support, he found himself quite alone in insisting on access to the crucial tapes when others had accepted an inadequate substitute. He didn’t think a prosecutor should be marshaling congressional support. He had a sense of duty that both prevented self-importance and suppressed hostility. When he did fight back at Watergate, it took the form of a news conference explaining to the American people why the issue wasn’t about an arrogant president and a vain or self-important prosecutor. Rather, he said, “The role of the special prosecutor would require anyone, any one of us, to subpoena the tapes.”

–Philip B. Heymann ’60, Harvard Law School professor, former associate prosecutor and consultant to the Watergate Special Prosecution Force

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Harvard offers courses in moral reasoning and professional ethics, and they’re important courses, and they can help students recognize moral problems, teach them to think more carefully about ethical dilemmas. But what is not possible in such classes is to teach students to care enough about their character to do the right thing, even when it is difficult or impossible to do so. That kind of teaching must come chiefly from personal integrity, by demonstrating in compelling ways why it matters to have integrity, to affirm your values, to sacrifice one’s self for principle. By his actions, Archie persuaded many people, including many he didn’t know, that integrity in public life did matter, that reason could prevail and that very few things were more inspiring in this life than moral courage. He accomplished all this at the very moment when such a message was most needed, and in doing so he immediately became the most influential and important Harvard teacher of his time. I will miss him more than words could ever, ever express.

–Derek Bok ’54, former Harvard University president and Harvard Law School dean

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It is the very private Archie Cox and Phyllis Cox that I came to love. You’ve heard about the letter that Archie wrote to Phyllis, which is in Ken Gormley’s biography [“Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation”]: “I must be getting old because thinking on our anniversary makes my mind go back. Dublin. Do you remember swimming in the quarry in Dorset? The past isn’t all; with you it’s only a promise of more joys, more happiness, more love together. I don’t know how to say it very well, but you are me, for without you there would be no me.”

–James Doyle, family friend

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In March of 1971, he was chosen by Harvard for a duty whose difficulty can scarcely be imagined today. A student group had invited a representative of South Vietnam to address a meeting in Sanders Theatre. Most students, an overwhelming proportion, were passionately opposed to the South Vietnamese government. The crowd would surely try to drown out the speaker. Archie’s job was to persuade students to let him speak. He said, “If this meeting is disrupted, then liberty would have died a little. Freedom of speech is indivisible. We cannot deny it for one man and save it for others. The test of our dedication to liberty is our willingness to allow the expression of ideas.”

–Anthony Lewis ’56-’57, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former New York Times columnist and Harvard Law School lecturer

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To us he was Dad, or perhaps Father, and that was and is much more important than what he was professionally to others. In thinking about him, many things have come to mind. … Dinners from which we could only be excused to get a dictionary or an atlas. The discussions we had about some of the day’s cases at the law school, particularly when he was teaching torts. I think this may have been one of his ways of imbuing in us a strong sense of right and wrong, a sense of fairness. His trying, quite unsuccessfully, to teach me chess, at which he was quite good and at which I never really beat him. … Dad clearly had high expectations for himself, as well as for his children. There was one time when he felt he had not done his best, and he said so at dinner. Whereupon one of my sisters, in an attempt to cheer him up, said, “Even though you are a flop, everybody loves you.”

–Archibald Cox Jr.