Archibald Cox would have gone down in history as a player in the civil rights movement, were it not for a little mishap called Watergate.

He was born on May 12, 1912, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1937: his first job was as a law clerk for circuit court judge Learned Hand. During World War II, Cox worked in the U.S. Solicitor General's office; after the war, he returned to Harvard and became a professor. When John F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1952, Cox became one of his favorite speechwriters.

After the 1960 U.S. presidential election, Kennedy appointed Cox to the post of solicitor general. Although he initially had an adversarial relationship with his boss, Robert Kennedy, Cox argued many prominent civil rights cases during the administration, including Baker v. Carr, Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., South Carolina v. Katzenbach, and Buckley v. Valeo.

In 1965, Cox left his position (he was replaced by none other than Thurgood Marshall) and returned to the scholarly confines of Cambridge.

Then, in 1973, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson (who had studied under Cox at Harvard) appointed Cox to be special prosecutor for the Watergate case. At that time, the case did not implicate President Nixon, so Cox's position was initially not a high-profile one. The Senate investigation committee, however, discovered that there were tapes of incriminating conversations in the Oval Office, and Cox issued a subpoena to force Nixon to hand over the tapes.

In retaliation, Nixon told Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson resigned on the spot, not wanting to fire his former professor. Nixon then turned to Richardson's second in command, William Ruckelshaus, who also resigned on the spot. Finally, Nixon persuaded solicitor general Robert Bork to fire Cox, completing what is now known as the "Saturday Night Massacre."

Again, Cox retreated to Cambridge and the lecture halls of Harvard Law School, where he taught until his death on May 29, 2004... the same day as fellow Watergate prosecutor Sam Dash.

It's easy to pigeonhole Cox as a liberal, but it's not true: he was vehemently opposed to the Roe v. Wade decision, and he also held a strong grudge against President Jimmy Carter. At any rate, many historians believe that Cox would have become a justice on the United States Supreme Court if Kennedy had lived long enough to appoint one. Instead, thanks to two decades of political turbulence, Cox remains a footnote rather than a heading in American history textbooks.

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