On June 13, 1971, it would have been hard to find a young man with better political prospects than Ed Cox.
The 24-year-old’s Rose Garden wedding to Tricia Nixon, daughter of the President, occupied two columns on the front page of The New York Times that morning. The groom was in his second year at Harvard Law School, and he’d already published a book on government reform with two fellow members of Ralph Nader’s young “raiders.” A career in public life seemed preordained for Mr. Cox, who was, as The Times noted, “tall, fine-boned and handsome” and “the scion of Easterners whose ancestors go back to the leaders of the American Revolution.”
But Richard Nixon’s dowry wasn’t as rich as it promised to be. Another story on that day’s front page offered a hint of the future, in the form of the first installment of the Pentagon Papers and their account of government deception over Vietnam. Just over three years later, Mr. Cox would be following Mr. Nixon onto a helicopter on the South Lawn, bound for exile in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Mr. Cox’s life since his father-in-law’s resignation has been more private than public. He’s been an aide-de-camp to the former President, a corporate lawyer in New York and, more recently, a discreet player in state government.
Now, more than three decades after he disappeared from public life, Mr. Cox appears ready to re-emerge . He is considering a long-shot challenge to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton next year-a plan that would catapult him back into Presidential politics against a woman who began her political career as a staffer to the Senate committee investigating Watergate.
If he goes through with his candidacy, Mr. Cox will certainly not attempt to distance himself from his late father-in-law. Associates note that Mr. Cox stuck by the former President through the worst of times and can be expected to run on the strength of his time with Nixon.
“He was very loyal and very close to his father-in-law,” said the economist Lawrence Kudlow, a friend of Mr. Cox. “He never, never strayed; he never left him.”
Mr. Cox hasn’t officially announced his candidacy, and he declined to speak publicly about his plans. But he is the only one of a small number of would-be candidates who has actually taken some steps toward launching a campaign. Other Republicans seem intent on ignoring the chance to take on Mrs. Clinton. Neither Governor George Pataki nor former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has shown much interest in a run for the Senate, and Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro is said by Republican insiders to be leaning toward a bid for State Attorney General.
Mr. Cox, by contrast, has opened a federal exploratory committee, Friends of Ed Cox, and begun raising and spending money, including the cost of private polling, confirmed Lynn Miller, his Albany campaign consultant. He also appears to have the tentative blessing of Mr. Pataki-a blessing that has come, as it typically does, in the form of financial aid from Mr. Pataki’s fund-raising chief, Cathy Blaney.
“Ed’s about 95, 98 percent there,” said Mr. Kudlow of Mr. Cox’s decision to run. “In my discussions with Ed, he’s going to run as a tax-cutting supply-sider-tough on the budget, very strong on national defense, educational choice. I think he’s going to run a pro-life campaign.”
Mr. Cox hasn’t said much about his views. Mr. Kudlow vouched for his conservative bona fides on economics, and Michael Long, the chairman of the state’s Conservative Party, said he approved of Mr. Cox’s opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
But there are indications that he has some less conservative positions, too. In fact, he is viewed in Republican Party circles as a patrician moderate in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller. As a chairman of the New York League of Conservation Voters’ Education Fund and a trustee of the State University of New York, he has hewed to the political center.
In any case, the first question looming over Mr. Cox isn’t his stance on the personal-income tax or the partial-birth-abortion ban; it’s what to do with his father-in-law’s legacy. Mr. Cox was very much an insider during the Nixon years. When his father-in-law’s administration began to collapse in the summer of 1974, Mr. Cox took two weeks off from his job as an associate at Cravath, Swaine and Moore to head with his wife to Washington.
In the final days of the Nixon administration, the President’s circle tightened to exclude nearly everybody except his immediate family. Nixon’s two young sons-in-law, Mr. Cox and David Eisenhower, were among his closest confidants, and Mr. Cox won a reputation in some circles as a Nixon dead-ender.
“It was Ed and Tricia and Julie and David and the President and Mrs. Nixon, and that was a very tight sextet,” said Leonard Garment, who was Nixon’s lawyer. “I think … [Mr. Cox] was one of the handful who argued that the President shouldn’t pack it in.”
Mr. Cox, Mr. Nixon recalled in his memoir, “urged me not to resign …. He had known several of [special prosecutor Leon] Jaworski’s staff at Harvard Law School and had served with some in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York City. He said, ‘I know these people. They are smart and ruthless. They hate you. They will harass you and hound you in civil and criminal actions across the country for the rest of your life.'”
James Fallows, a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter who now writes for The Atlantic Monthly, roomed with Mr. Cox for a summer in Washington. He had a charitable view of Mr. Cox’s stance during those memorable days.
“His wife’s father was going through this historic disgrace, and he was standing by her,” he said. “It was basically to his credit-he was basically loyal rather than basically corrupted.”
Mr. Cox-looking tall, stiff, young and on the verge of tears-appears at the edge of those famous photographs of Nixon’s farewell to his staff in the East Room of the White House on Aug. 9, 1974. He’s standing to the left of the President and Mrs. Nixon, and of Tricia; on the other side are Julie Nixon Eisenhower and David Eisenhower.
They followed the former President onto the waiting helicopter, and Mr. Cox would be beside his father-in-law, in one way or another, for the next 20 years.
On the wall of Mr. Cox’s corner office at Belknap, Patterson, Webb and Tyler in midtown is a picture of him with Mr. Nixon and a group of Chinese leaders. (A reporter made his way to Mr. Cox’s office through a misunderstanding over whether he’d be willing to speak about his plans publicly, which he was not.) It wasn’t the famous Nixon-goes-to-China trip, but a 1979 venture that was part of the former President’s slow return to the public eye as a foreign-affairs guru, carrier of notes and occasional back-channel American diplomat.
Mr. Cox, a tall, boyish man with a gravelly voice and the same part in his hair on the left that he wore in 1974, didn’t just spend most of his career out of the public eye. He was a deliberately discreet figure, traveling with Nixon to China, Egypt, Eastern Europe, Pakistan and elsewhere, and making a semi-official solo trip in 1987 to meet Fidel Castro on Nixon’s behalf. He also practiced law for a few years in the 1980’s with William Colby, Mr. Nixon’s C.I.A. chief, who ended up in private law practice in New York.
“He had a very close relationship with my father,” said Jonathan Colby, a managing director at the Carlyle Group and Mr. Cox’s Princeton roommate, who said Mr. Cox and the senior Mr. Colby worked together on deals in Asia.
Even today, Mr. Cox is engaged in a battle over Nixon’s legacy, which has set him and his wife against Julie Nixon Eisenhower and her husband over how open the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace should be to criticism of the former President. The Coxes have been cast by the library’s administrators on the, well, Nixonian side, favoring privacy and family control, and were on the margins of a recent controversy over the cancellation of a conference at the library that would have included Nixon critics.
Mr. Cox’s supporters, however, note that he and his wife supported making the library part of the National Archives and Records Administration, and that the real conflict is over the relative strength of the facility’s staff and board.
In general, Mr. Cox’s style and résumé are out of an earlier American ruling class. He met his wife in high school, at a dance at the Chapin School not far from the Yorkville mansion where he was raised. (Tricia, in The Times’ description, was Nixon’s “diminutive, ethereal, blond daughter.”) His father was a lawyer, and his maternal grandfather was a judge on New York State’s highest court. His mother was chairwoman of the International Debutante Ball, and his relationship with his future wife really got going, according to reports at the time, when he escorted her to the 1964 ball.
“Fast Eddie” was his famous nickname, dating back to high school, though it was “kind of a joke” on his serious demeanor and generally “correct” social behavior, said Mr. Colby.
Even his foray into apparently leftist politics, when he was among the original Nader’s Raiders in 1968, had a more traditional, progressive Republican tilt. (William Howard Taft IV was a fellow raider.) The target of the investigation was patronage and corruption at the Federal Trade Commission, not the more ideological fights with which Mr. Nader is now identified.
At a recent symposium on the 90th anniversary of the F.T.C., Mr. Cox gave a glimpse of his own political views, identifying two views of the commission: the reigning free-market stance, and Mr. Nader’s anti-corporate position. He described his work in the 1960’s as standing between the two and supporting the notion that occasional, professional government intervention could supplement the market.
The next summer, he worked again for Mr. Nader and wrote for the more Establishment-liberal New Republic, where he advocated for steam engines in cars and backed reformers in the United Mine Workers union.
After law school, however, Mr. Cox threw himself into private practice, though he did make one foray into government as the Reagan White House’s man at the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, an entity designed to develop alternative fuels during the 1970’s energy crunch. Oil prices fell, and Mr. Cox shut the agency down.
“There’s a real contrast [with] Hillary’s big-government approach to nationalizing health care, whereas Ed Cox actually eliminated a government agency,” said Mr. Kudlow, who met Mr. Cox in high school, on the private-school tennis circuit. (Mr. Cox attended the Trinity School; Mr. Kudlow, Dwight-Englewood in New Jersey.)
Since Mr. Nixon’s death in 1994, Mr. Cox has continued his prosperous, if unspectacular, corporate practice at Belknap, whose signature client is the pharmaceuticals firm Johnson and Johnson. Mr. Cox is the chairman of the corporate-law department. And soon before his father-in-law died, Mr. Cox began taking an increasingly active role in state affairs. He was mentioned as a candidate for Attorney General in 1994, and wound up a co-chairman of the campaign of the winner, Dennis Vacco.
He has also been appointed over the years to a range of state boards, beginning in 1992, when the Assembly minority leader made him a member of the state’s Commission on Judicial Nomination. Since then, Governor Pataki has made him a board member of the State Council of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the State University of New York, where he has been an advocate of charter schools and community colleges.
Mr. Cox has been a moderate on the SUNY board, however, backing Mr. Pataki’s reforms but differing with the board’s resident conservative bomb-thrower, Candace de Russy.
“My colleague Ed Cox has provided superb leadership as chair of the Charter Schools Committee,” she said in an e-mail. “However, over the last decade he and the rest of the Board have not seen fit to back most of my recommendations for reforming SUNY as a whole, academically and from the standpoint of cost-effectiveness.”
To the state’s Republican establishment, Mr. Cox is an acceptable choice, if not a thrilling one. He’s unlikely to come off-as Mrs. Clinton’s last opponent, Rick Lazio, did-as an obstreperous lightweight. He has a strong résumé, a grasp of policy and the kind of personal gravity that comes with having spent time close to the center of power.
But even Mr. Cox’s friends acknowledge that his candidacy is a long shot.
“I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m not saying it’s likely-I’m just saying it’s possible,” said Mr. Kudlow, who also said that Mr. Cox’s polling, performed by Republican pollster Fred Steeper, indicated that Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to get more than 55 percent of the vote.
Republican sources also emphasized that the contract with Ms. Blaney, the fund-raiser, includes a clause allowing her to jump ship if a stronger candidate emerges.
“He’s obviously a serious person. He’s someone who understands the role of a U.S. Senator, and he has a pretty good appreciation for the state’s issues and the state’s problems,” said John Faso, the Republican candidate for State Comptroller in 2002. “But anyone going up against Hillary Clinton has a formidable challenge, and it’s difficult for someone who’s never run for office before.”
Mr. Cox may also wind up disappointing some national Republicans who would like the New York State party to field a kind of kamikaze candidate-someone whose main aim wouldn’t be winning, but rather damaging Mrs. Clinton’s Presidential prospects.
“I don’t think it’s in his DNA to launch himself as a missile against Hillary on behalf of this national ultraconservative party,” said former Public Advocate Mark Green, another former Nader’s Raider.
State party strategists say the lesson of 2000 is that personal attacks on Mrs. Clinton can backfire on her challenger. Though “Stop Hillary” has featured in state Republican fund-raising appeals, it’s unlikely to be a campaign theme, say some members of the party. More likely, the Republican candidate will question Mrs. Clinton’s intention to fill out her six-year term and her ability to deliver for New York.
“The reason why Senator Clinton has won bipartisan praise and approval from across the state is because she has kept her nose to the grindstone, working hard and focusing on local concerns,” said a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, Howard Wolfson, in an e-mail. “Whether helping to bring billions to lower Manhattan after 9/11 or jobs to upstate, Hillary Clinton has delivered for New York.”
Mr. Cox has also told associates that his wife won’t play an active role in the campaign.
The history of the Clintons and Nixons, however, will be difficult to ignore, though its significance may be hard to predict. Mr. Cox has told friends that he holds no ill will toward the former First Lady for her time investigating Watergate. And, indeed, Bill Clinton played a crucial, final role in Nixon’s rehabilitation and in what may have been the former President’s most important post–White House political ploy: his intervention in America’s relationship with Russia during and after the 1992 Presidential campaign.
Nixon opened a surprising and damaging attack on then-President George H.W. Bush by questioning his commitment to the democratic reformers in Moscow, an attack that meshed neatly with Mr. Clinton’s campaign message. Mr. Clinton’s top Russia hand, Strobe Talbott, wrote in his memoir that he met with Nixon in the first month of the Clinton administration, and that the former President dropped by the White House family quarters to advise the new President that March.
At Nixon’s funeral, Mr. Clinton delivered a gracious eulogy that touched only lightly on Nixon’s “mistakes,” praising instead his liberal domestic policies, which included creating the Environmental Protection Administration, as well as his engagement in foreign affairs.
“May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close,” Mr. Clinton said.