Find Ken Gormley’s display at Duquesne University.
“My experience with Archibald Cox taught me that you didn’t have to surrender everything in order to scramble up the ladder of success. There are still people who are the silent heroes. That is perhaps the most reassuring discovery I’ve had in my career.”
I grew up here in Pittsburgh in a little town called Swissvale, a working-class town. Through either some act of God or mistake, I got into Harvard Law School. It was surreal, to have grown up in a mill town and then walk around in the Ivy League atmosphere with people who had gone to Princeton and Yale.
One of the most amazing experiences was taking a course in constitutional law with Professor Archibald Cox. He was a national hero at that point because he had been the Watergate special prosecutor who stood up to President Nixon. He didn’t back down when Nixon tried to prevent him from getting the White House tapes that led to the unraveling of the Nixon presidency. He was also one of the greatest civil rights lawyers in American history, having argued many of the great Supreme Court civil rights cases mainly during the Kennedy administration. He was an incredible guy, but he was scary too, because he was so world-renowned. He was a Boston Brahmin: proper, upright and did not suffer fools gladly. I was concerned I might be one of those fools.
I was in his class along with my only good friend from Pittsburgh. It was intimidating just being in the course. But then I did well. The next year I was in the building and Archibald Cox came walking up and said, “Would you have a mind to be one of my teaching assistants for my undergraduate course?” I almost fell over. I didn’t even know he knew who I was. It just seemed too amazing. Every time I would go to his office, the fear of God rose up, because he was kind. But serious, stern, and imperious.
When I came back to Pittsburgh, I practiced law and I taught, and I always wanted to write. I had written my whole time in college and afterwards, and I wanted to write a book. I had narrowed it down to either a biography of Archibald Cox or a biography of Roberto Clemente, the great Pirate right-fielder. So, I wrote to Professor Cox and he was tentative at best. I was a whippersnapper from Pittsburgh who had written stories about hopping freight trains and wrestling bears for the Pitt news, and I was going write the biography of one of the great American public figures? He let me go ahead and try. He’d had a younger brother who wanted to be a writer, who was killed in World War II, and I got a sense he wanted to give me that opportunity.
My wife Laura and I had a brand-new baby, and I took off work without pay and was living in abandoned dorm rooms in Boston, working every night and doing interviews. My biggest fear was that he was, like most people you run into in life, sort of a fraud. That he was puffed up bigger than he was. I remember telling Laura on one of the trips home that he most likely he played little roles in big events. That mostly it was exaggerated, and I wouldn’t have much of a book.
As I interviewed people, I realized it was the opposite. He had understated everything. He had played major roles in historic events. I interviewed famous Americans like Arthur Schlesinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Elliot Richardson, and they credited Cox with many of the most significant parts, whether it was work with John F. Kennedy or during the Watergate episode. I realized that this integrity was not a fake in Cox. It was a revelation to see that there actually were some people who lived like this.
He had lived this way since he was a child, careful about following his moral compass in every decision, big or small, from the time he was a little boy. It was only because of that I realized that when the spotlight of history was on him in his later years as the Watergate special prosecutor, he was able to make that tough decision to stand up to a president, do the right things and not buckle.
The book came out in 1997 and one of the high points was when he came here, because this was my home. I invited him to have dinner at my home where I grew up, with my folks. Now, this was a two-bedroom house, on the edge of Edgewood and Swissvale, where they still slept on the pull-out couch in the living room. The most opposite of any fancy things one would imagine in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
But it was just so wonderful, because there wasn’t an ounce of pretense in the room. He was comfortable, they were comfortable. It doesn’t matter whether you end up being the person who becomes the famous national hero who stood up to the President in Watergate, or like my mom and dad. My mom taught third grade in St. Anselm’s in Swissvale for 20 years. My dad was a research counselor. They were quiet and self-effacing. They never had a public dimension to them, but I was thinking as I was sitting there that they had all given incredible gifts to people.
That experience with Archibald Cox taught me what I hoped to accomplish; that you didn’t have to surrender everything in order to scramble up the ladder and get things. There were still some people who are the silent heroes that you don’t even know about. That is perhaps the most reassuring discovery I’ve had in my career. Archibald Cox showed me that was possible on a grand scale. Your faith and moral compass isn’t just something for your personal life, when you’re praying in church or whatever. It’s meant to be a part of how you live every day, whether someone is paying attention or getting credit for it. It’s liberating to reach that conclusion, because then you don’t have to have an angle on everything. You don’t have to do anything for some other unstated purpose.
I started thinking I might be interested in politics. It turned me off that there were many people assuming that everything was a calculation about whether it would advance them to the next level. I realized that there was a pathway that you could follow where faith was integrated in your personal life, and also your career, your public life. Ultimately, you can’t live life worrying about whether you lose your job. You do have to worry about raising your family, but if you’re owned by your career, you can’t make the maximum contribution and follow your moral compass in the way that you should.
When Archibald Cox got fired by President Nixon he thought his career in public service was over. But like Cox, once you realize that it’s okay to follow that moral code, and that it’s going to serve you well, and nothing should own you in terms of other people, positions, and ambition; once you reach that point, it’s more enjoyable to follow through with your career. At times, I ask myself what Archibald Cox would have done or what my parents would have done.