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In Memoriam: Watergate Legends Sam Dash and Archibald Cox

May 31, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1973 Sam Dash was chief counsel of the Senate Watergate committee, investigating the break-in and bugging of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Televised hearings that made him a public figure

SAMUEL DASH: Is it a fact Mr. McCord that you presently stand convicted on a count of break in of the democratic national headquarters at the Watergate?

JEFFREY BROWN: He questioned one witness after another including a White House aide named Alexander Butterfield who told of the existence of secretly recorded tapes of the President Nixon’s Oval Office meetings. Also in 1973 Archibald Cox served as special Watergate prosecutor, appointed by attorney General Eliot Richardson.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Cox, do you feel that you’ve been given enough authority to be totally independent in pursuing this investigation?

ARCHIBALD COX: I certainly do. The documents speak of full responsibility and contains an engagement not to countermand or interfere with any of my activity, it directs other people in the department to cooperate and every conversation the secretary and I have had assures me that those words are to be taken literally, or more than literally, and I think, in addition, it is inherent in my position.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when Cox demanded the White House tapes be turned over, President Nixon resisted, and Cox went to court. On October 20, 1973, President Nixon ordered Elliot Richardson to fire Cox, Richardson refused and resigned, as did his deputy William Ruckelshaus. And Robert Bork, then the number three at justice, fired Cox. The event became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

RICHARD NIXON: I shall resign the presidency….

JEFFREY BROWN: Nine-and-a-half months later President Nixon resigned from office. In 2002, Archibald Cox wrote that the Watergate experience: “was one in which the country showed its appreciation of the ancient rule that even the highest executive must be subject to the law.” A year later, Sam Dash talked about Watergate on the NewsHour.

SAM DASH: You know, this was a very serious tragic time in America, we almost lost a democracy and our constitutional government. And the good time was that our government worked as the Constitution wanted it to work. It was a strong senate, a strong Congress that was carrying out its constitutional oversight function, that exposed the criminal activities of the president, but not only exposed them but informed the public who were the ultimate sovereigns. So here a president resigned on the exposure of this based on the separation of powers, without bloodshed, it wasn’t a revolution, and a new president comes in without bloodshed. The government worked at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sam Dash and Archibald Cox both died this past Saturday. Dash was 79, Cox 92.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now is Richard Ben-Veniste. Now in private practice and a member of the 9/11 commission he is co-author of the book “Stonewall, the Real Story of the Watergate Prosecution.” With me here in Washington is Michael Beschloss, presidential historian and NewsHour regular. Michael, starting with you, it seems one of these curious twists of history and fate that these two figures would die on the same day.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It is, Jeff. Sometimes in the news business as we know other programs other than the NewsHour, you know, you think a rap singer dies on the same day as a Supreme Court justice and there’s an effort to link the two. Here it’s almost spooky. These two men died on the same day because to begin with, if you had to list probably the top ten people in America responsible for bringing Richard Nixon and the people around him to justice during Watergate, these two would be on the list. But furthermore, Dash was the one who was able to organize a set of hearings in the Senate in the spring and summer of 1973 from the legislative branch.

Cox as the special prosecutor under Richard Nixon later fired did the same thing from the executive branch. Cox was Dash’s teacher when Dash was in school at Harvard Law School and you think, you know, in looking back that these were two people who would have worked together from the beginning but actually at the beginning Cox talked to Dash and said well now that I’m special prosecutor, we’re going to organize a staff and begin going after these people, you can shut down these hearings on Capitol Hill. You’re not needed. And Dash said to Cox, Congress has a function and even if these hearings should prejudice the prosecution, they should go on. In saying that, he cited an authority, a solicitor general under Kennedy who said that in the 1960s and that was none other than Archibald Cox.

JEFFREY BROWN: Take us back in time if you would and tell us what it was like in the special prosecutor’s office and how Archibald Cox approached his work.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: It was an extraordinary time. Archibald Cox was a true hero of the time. He refused to allow the force of the president’s office, the naked force, applied during the… and threatened during the period approaching the Saturday night massacre to derail him from the rule of law and the rule of conscience which is what he followed. We all expected something to happen but not the cataclysm that erupted when the president ordered his attorney general to fire Archibald Cox. The attorney general Eliot Richardson refused to do so based on law and principle. William Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general similarly refused and he was fired.

It was left to Robert Bork the solicitor general who carried out the order to fire Archibald Cox. The FBI occupied our office, sealed it off, took our files, put them under its domain and we, for a period of time, faced the overwhelming force of the executive branch of government which was only overcome through the extraordinary outpouring of public indignation at the president’s activities. Clearly, he had done something to protect his own interests, utilizing an argument that did not hold water and ultimately the President of the United States was forced to turn over the tapes which ultimately resulted in his determination that he would have to resign or face certain removal from office.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about Mr. Cox’s personal qualities that allowed him to get through this.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: He was a man of absolute integrity, and if rule of law was the thing that he valued most. The rule of law was the thing that he valued most. He was concerned that people might think he was trying to pick a fight with the president which he was not. He had great respect for the presidency of the United States, but at the same time he recognized that he had an obligation to the Constitution and to the American public that would brook no other decision but that he would pursue if evidence… pursue the evidence where he found it. Indeed he was not about to accept the intimidating offer of the president not to ask for the tapes but rather to accept a bogus compromise that we know would not have satisfied the needs of the investigation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, for his part, Sam Dash had the job of conducting hearings in what was an incredibly charged atmosphere.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s how he and Cox ironically wound up working together because while the prosecution was going on under people like Richard Ben-Veniste and Archibald Cox, Dash and the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate, Sam Irvin were saying even though these prosecutions might take two or three years, the public has to begin to understand what went on here so they worked very hard to establish a… an investigation that was seen as above partisanship.

I think if you had to talk about Dash’s contribution probably two things. One was obviously he ferreted out the fact that Richard Nixon had privately taped his conversations which meant that they could either prove or disprove the allegations against Nixon. But the other thing was that early on, John Dean, the White House counsel who had resigned who was the first in a big way to come out and say Richard Nixon did very bad things, Dash almost massaged Dean, got him to say more and more, met with him over and over again in secret because at the beginning Dean was willing to say things about Nixon but was very quiet about what he might have himself done. Dash essentially said to Dean, you know, if you do this you won’t be credible. You have to be as honest about your role in this as you are about Nixon’s.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read a very interesting quote from Mr. Dash on how he tried to conduct the hearings. This is a few years after the fact. He said I scripted it like a story, like a detective story. The most important thing I had to do was convey the information to the public in a way they could understand. So it sounds as though he was very aware of the kind of public drama that he was part of.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s it. That’s in the oldest tradition of what a congressional hearing is which is to turn up, ferret out important information but also to get it across to the public.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Ben-Veniste, did Archibald Cox also have a sense of being part of this great drama?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Oh, absolutely he did. He recognized that this was an historic event. He did not tread lightly on the question of securing evidence from the president or that the president himself might be involved in some criminal conspiracy. It troubled him greatly. But as Michael has pointed out, there are two different functions. One is the congressional oversight function; the other is the prosecutorial function. Both were at play during Watergate.

Now, we in the Watergate prosecutor’s office picked up the investigation where the Irvin Committee and Sam Dash as counsel to that committee had left off. We presented evidence and developed further evidence in the grand jury and it was the Watergate special prosecutor’s office who was able to obtain the court order to produce the tapes. In fact, the Senate committee was denied that opportunity in court. And the court rejected the Senate’s request. But the Watergate special prosecutor’s request was honored. Ultimately Nixon was compelled to turn over the tapes after the Saturday night massacre and the prosecutions of Nixon’s top appointed officials, his chief of staff, the former attorney general of the United States, the former counsel to the president, the chief domestic advisor to the president, all were convicted of crimes of a serious nature involving the Watergate cover- up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, we chew over the legacy and meaning of Watergate because of its central part in our history. When you think of these two men, what about that legacy stands out most?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, Jeff, we always hear about Watergate. The system worked. It sure did. Thank God it did work. But it only works when you have people who are… who measure up to their roles. These two men did. If you didn’t have dash being a very effective committee counsel want to go get out information but at the same time not making the committee look like a witch hunt you might have had a different result. If you had someone of less integrity than Archibald Cox, perhaps who might have cut a deal with Nixon on the tapes we might not have seen in the end Richard Nixon brought to justice.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael Beschloss, Richard Ben-Veniste, thank you very much for joining us.