Podcast: Victor Li on Richard Nixon’s Legal Career in New York
Richard Nixon with dog “Checkers” in New York’s Central Park (Richard Nixon Presidential Library).
Victor Li is assistant editor of the ABA Journal.
After Richard Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential Election, and the 1962 California Gubernatorial election, he made a new life with his family in New York, and became partner at an historic Wall Street Law Firm, which would eventually be named Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, & Alexander. This is all in a new book by Victor Li called “Nixon in New York.”
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we explore Richard Nixon’s legal career with Victor Li, assistant editor of the ABA Journal.
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to “The Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or nixonfoundation.org.
After Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election and and the race for California governor in 1962, he made a new life with his family in New York and became a partner at an historic Wall Street law firm, which would eventually be named Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, & Alexander. This is all in a new book by Victor Li called “Nixon in New York.” Li is an attorney and Assistant Managing Editor with the ABA Journal. You can view his work at victor-li.com or on Twitter @victorli2000. Victor Li, welcome.
Victor Li: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, why did you decide to write this book about Nixon’s so-called “Wilderness Years” in New York City?”
Victor Li: I’ve always been interested in Nixon just as a historical figure. And one thing that I felt like I never really knew too much about was, what he did during those Wilderness Years. I mean we know a little bit about his political activities. That gets covered a lot. But I didn’t really know much about what he did as a lawyer. And in my job as a legal reporter, I’ve been on this for about nine years now. It’s something that really kind of piqued my interest just because I would see some things like in books about him, where they would talk a little bit about what he did as a lawyer, or his time at the firm, or his handling of certain cases. But I never saw anything that really took a deep dive into it. So, I thought, “Oh, well, why don’t I do it?”
Jonathan Movroydis: I understand that you were given unprecedented access to the papers of one of Nixon’s law partners, Tom Evans. Could you tell us a little bit about this find, and who was Tom Evans?
Victor Li:Tom Evans like you said, he was someone who worked with Nixon at the firm. When he joined the firm he met Nixon. He handled some cases with him, and they got to know each other, and became friendly, and he eventually helped him on his 1968 campaign. Evans is someone who became a giant at the law firm, at the time he was still a young man. He would eventually become managing partner of the firm. He sort of, served as the firm’s unofficial historian, someone who kept a lot of documents over the years: memos, papers, things along those lines.
The whole thing kind of started when we were coming up on Nixon’s 50th anniversary after losing the California race. I thought, “Oh, well, wouldn’t that be cool to do, like kind of, an article looking at what he did afterward first at his law firm and then how that prepared them for the ’68 campaign? And, I was hoping to kind of write something to coincide with the 50th anniversary of him moving to New York.
But Mr. Evans just happened to pass away around that time, so I never got a chance to talk with him. But I’d seen something that he had been working on, a manuscript about his experience with Nixon at the firm. And I wasn’t sure whether I… like I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries or anything like that because I was already kind of thinking about writing something. But I didn’t want to intrude on what he had written or if he was just going to cover the same thing that I did and like then maybe it might not be worth doing.
So, after some deliberation, I reached out to one of his daughters and just be like, “I’m not…obviously, if you’re interested in publishing this manuscript of his posthumously, I’m not going to write anything. I don’t want to obviously do that. But if you’re not interested in doing it with it I would love to take a look at it, if that’s possible.” And she was very nice. Her name is Heather, she lives in Brooklyn. She was very friendly, very nice. She said, “Actually he had boxes and boxes of papers relating to that stuff, would you like to come take a look at it?” And I said, “Yeah, that’d be great.”
And so we talked and she actually let me have free run of her house in Brooklyn, even though she didn’t even know who I was. Let me have free run of her house in Brooklyn, just like going through the boxes and copying the documents and that kind of stuff. She was very nice, very friendly. And she was like, “We’re not going to do anything with the manuscript, but we would love it if you could acknowledge just him and his papers, and that kind of stuff.” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” And also I spoke with one of Tom Evans’ other daughters, Paige, who also has some documents as well. And she was also very friendly and very nice and gave me access to those.
So I probably couldn’t’ve done it without them. So, it was very nice of them to do that. They didn’t have to. They didn’t know me from Adam. So, it was very nice of them to do that. And I definitely owe them a lot.
Jonathan Movroydis: What do the papers give in terms of the story arc for “Nixon in New York?”
Victor Li: Sure. Well Tom Evans was very meticulous as far as his note keeping, as far as just the things that he kept. He actually had things, kind of, divided up. Like he had several binders full of just campaign-related stuff. He had several binders of like interviews that he had done with people. Like, he actually had an interview with Nixon in preparation for this project that he was working on. He spoke with some other people like John Mitchell, and people on those lines.
But, one thing that was very interesting because hey, I mean, lawyers back then, especially, but now with email and whatnot. But back then like they wrote everything down. It’s like everything… even if it was like, “Hey, you got a phone call from so and so,” there’d be a memo. ” you got a phone call from so and so at 5:00 today” and things along those lines. And then people would initial it, people would sign it or whatnot.
So there was a very large paper trail as far as what the things that he had done as a lawyer, like what his day was like, what kind of cases he worked on, what kind of like his travel, and how he balanced his firm responsibilities with his political activities, which were still going at full force at that point. Billing records. Because one thing about a law firm is it’s a partnership, so the partners all need to know how much money’s coming in, who gets what, how the money gets divvied up, and whatnot. So, all that stuff was in there. All that information was in there. How much they were charging clients, how much work they did for clients. So, it was a lot of things to go through. But it was a lot of very interesting information.
And one thing about Nixon was that he was very, very meticulous. Even, I mean, I’m sure, you’ve talked to a lot of people who could talk about his work ethic, but he was very, very meticulous. He was involved in everything at the firm, maybe he wasn’t like as far as day-to-day activities, he didn’t have as much to do with that stuff as some of the other partners. But as far as the big decisions, as far as bringing in clients, as far as charting the strategy of the firm, he was very much involved in all that stuff.
Jonathan Movroydis: Who else did you talk to in your research for the book?
Victor Li: Right. Well, I mean, unfortunately, a lot of the people from that period have passed on. But I did speak with Pat Buchanan who was employed at the firm. He was a speechwriter who, doesn’t have a law degree, but he was working at the firm, kind of working for Nixon at that point in preparation for his campaign. I spoke with Dwight Chapin, the same thing, not a lawyer. He was at the firm just working for Nixon and doing the things for him in preparation for the campaign. I spoke to John Sears, who is a lawyer, and was one of the people that got recruited onto Nixon’s campaign staff. A lot of it based on his performance as a lawyer. He was a very highly regarded attorney at the firm and who had made an impression on Len Garment, who was probably Nixon’s closest colleague at the firm. And I spoke with several of the lawyers at the firm as well, who had been there at the time with Nixon, and people who worked on the Hill case with him. The Supreme Court case that he argued. And people who were young associates at the time, and who eventually became top lawyers of the firm. People like Donald Zeller, who ran the firm for a little while.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to a lot of people just because of the time lapse, and whatnot. But it was nice to be able to talk to some people who had been there with him and who could reflect on what he had done, and the impact he had made on their lives.
Jonathan Movroydis: The book is called “Nixon in New York.” Could you tell our audience a little bit about Nixon’s presence in New York? Where did he live in the city and where was the law firm that was eventually to be called Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander?
Victor Li: Right. Well, the law firm was located actually on Wall Street. Basically, there was in New York, obviously, there are a ton of law firms as probably the law firm capital…if not the law firm capital in the world, it’s one of the law firm capitals in the world. And so in like a several-block radius in New York, in Wall Street, you’ll get like a bunch of top firms. the so-called “white-shoe firms,” where they handle big cases, they have big clients and whatnot. And so, Mudge historically was one of these top firms on Wall Street. And they had, for the longest time, handled matters for clients, ranging from Bank of New York to Chase Bank, a lot of these kinds of big… I think, like Studebaker, and things along those lines. These really big companies who would give a lot of their business to the firm.
When Nixon came to the firm, the firm was kind of in a bit of a slump as a lot of law firms will go through slumps every once in a while. Partners will leave, partners will pass on. There was sort of a transition going on where the older generation that had handled most of the big-ticket items, they were starting to leave or retire. And, some of the new lawyers coming up, maybe they weren’t quite ready to pick up the slack, or they were still learning things, or they were not quite where they needed to be. And so, the firm was kind of in a slump at that point. And actually, they were derogatorily known as “Mudge, Sludge, Fudge & Won’t Budge,” just because they didn’t have the best reputation at that point.
So what happened was Nixon was looking for a landing spot after losing that ’62 election in California. And, he wanted to go to New York because it was a city that excited him. A city that really intrigued him as far what he was looking for. I mean, after he had lost the ’60 election, he went back to California to practice law. And he didn’t find it very fulfilling. And actually, he had spent most of his time preparing his run for governor. So, a move to New York, really kind of stimulated him because it was near the UN, so there were always be like foreign dignitaries passing through. It was seen as the big league for the law because that’s where all the big firms were. That’s where all the big money was. And Nixon was always trying to prove himself to the so-called “Eastern Establishment,” trying to prove his credentials as someone who belonged.
And so, going to New York really appealed to him. And a firm like Mudge desperately needed someone like him, who knew everybody who had a big name and who when he called someone that call would get returned. Richard Nixon leaves a message for you, you’re going to call back. So, that was sort of the draw for someone like Nixon. And this is still something that happens to this day on with big law firms. They’re looking for someone with a big Rolodex. Someone who knows a lot of people. Someone who can get those calls returned and can get clients to come in and meet with you. And, Nixon fit the bill for a firm that desperately needed someone to come in and, kind of, shake things up.
And he really seemed to enjoy living in New York. He lived on 5th Avenue, in a really nice apartment building. It was actually the same building that Nelson Rockefeller lived in. And he definitely enjoyed himself while he was there. He would very often go to sporting events. He would go to the theater occasionally. A lot of the time, he would spend the evening at home reading books in his study, or entertaining people in his new apartment. So, he definitely seemed to enjoy himself while he was there. And if it hadn’t been for the fact that he desperately wanted to be president it would have been a very good lifestyle, for a lot of people. A really enviable lifestyle for a lot of lawyers who would kind of look at that as sort of the pinnacle of what they could achieve.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked about him moving to New York and the attraction of going there. How did he come to join that firm? Was there anyone who particularly recruited him to be there?
Victor Li: Yeah. Well, so what happened was, Elmer Bobst was one of their main clients, probably their main client at that point, he brought in the most business. He was a pharmaceutical giant, who was very good friends with Nixon. And so, what happened was he told the firm, he goes, “You need Richard Nixon at this firm. You need new blood at the top. You need someone like him that can come in and give you the things that you’ve been looking for.” And so, he brokered a meeting between several of the senior partners and Nixon. They had a round of golf. They played a round of golf and afterward they were kind of talking just shooting the breeze, and talking about Nixon, whether or not he would be devoted to the firm. Whether or not he was just using the firm to be a stepping stone for another run. And the partners, they were satisfied that Nixon would bring in enough benefits to the firm, and whatnot, that they should go ahead and take the plunge at heart, and make a deal with him.
So they went back to the hotel. They drew up an agreement and they drew names out of a hat to see whose names will come after Nixon. Because obviously, his name would have to come at the front. And that was pretty much that. And then he moved to New York. He applied for the bar, and once he got admitted, he was free to start practicing law.
Jonathan Movroydis: And the future attorney general, if I’m not mistaken, John Mitchell, also was at that firm, is that correct?
Victor Li: He came later. So, what happened was very often… in the legal world, there are all kinds of mergers and acquisitions going on, where firms will merge or a bigger firm will acquire a smaller firm. And so, in this case, John Mitchell had a very, very successful firm, where he practiced municipal bonds. And he made a ton of money. He was probably one of the most politically connected lawyers in the country because just the nature of the work made him go to like all these municipalities, all these cities, all these states that wanted to raise money by issuing municipal bonds. And so, Mitchell would come in. He would draw up the bonds. If there were laws that needed to be changed in the states, or the municipalities, or the cities to allow for these bonds to be issued, then he would then he and his team would consult on what needed to be done. So, he got to know everybody, basically in the country. And actually there was a question as to what his real political affiliation was. Because there was a story that came out in a book written about John Mitchell, that said that at one point, the Kennedys actually approached him to manage JFK’s campaign.
He knew everybody. He had a good relationship with Nelson Rockefeller actually because, in New York, they worked very closely together. and [inaudible 00:17:51] municipal bonds so the state could raise money. And so, there was too much work coming in for the firm. They needed more people, more infrastructure a larger footprint to be able to deal with all these issues. And Mudge was looking for firms to acquire because they were in expansion mode as well. So, it seemed like a good fit for them. They were looking to kind of get into this municipal bond market, because at the time it was exploding. And there was the added benefit for Nixon that Mitchell was someone who knew everybody that Nixon would need to talk to, get to know. If not, already know someone that he could send to like massage them, or talk with them, or whatnot.
Mitchell became the perfect choice for him as far as a campaign manager, even though he had never run a campaign before. And Mitchell proved himself pretty quickly that he and Nixon could work well together. And that he would be able to run the campaign in a way that would best allow Nixon to concentrate on sort of the big picture and what needed to be done in order to win the nomination and then the election.
Jonathan Movroydis: Who were some of the other big partners? In the book you mentioned Guthrie, but there are some of the other names, Mudge, Rose, Alexander, Guthrie himself. Were any of these people operating the firm?
Victor Li: Mudge was sort of the legacy name… because the firm had gone through many iterations over the years, as a lot of these firms do. The original name of the firm was like Rushmore, Stern. But at one point then Mudge took over and became the senior partner, so it became Mudge, Rushmore, Stern & Bisbee or something like that. He’s no longer in the picture at the time Nixon comes in just because that was just the name they always used. And that was how they were known like on Wall Street and within the legal industry.
Rose was probably one of the partners at the firm. He wasn’t that involved with Nixon or with the politics, especially. He was more involved with kind of running the firm, doing the day-to-day management and whatnot. He was a partner who had been in the firm for a long time. And he was kind of more someone who wasn’t quite involved in politics and whatnot.
Guthrie with someone who was very much involved in that stuff. He became Nixon’s close friend at the firm as well, in addition to Leonard Garment, who was probably his best friend at the firm. He was sort of the de facto head of the firm before Nixon came in. He pretty much ran things. Nixon said that he reminded him more of Lyndon Johnson than Lyndon Johnson did. He had that big personality. Someone who would come into a room and just immediately started slapping everybody’s backs. And everyone would just kind of, naturally kind of gravitate towards him. So, he had that big dynamic personality that’s not necessary to be a Wall Street lawyer, but definitely helps, especially if you’re bringing in business and bringing in clients.
But they became very close. And he was actually, kind of, Nixon’s mentor in a lot of ways. Because even though Nixon had always had been in the public eye for so long and he was used to dealing with those kinds of things. On Wall Street, he was not quite well versed and he didn’t quite understand how things were done just because he hadn’t been there. So, Guthrie sort of became this teacher, like, just teaching him how to deal with clients, how to be a lawyer at the firm, how to be a partner of the firm, and how to run things. How to, like, run the firm and things along those lines.
And then some of the others like, then I think one of the other partners, Alexander, was someone who Nixon also had had a pretty good relationship with as far as like talking to him about policy. He was a tax expert. When Nixon was like trying to figure out what his tax plan, one of the people on the staff he went to go talk to was Alexander to get his input. But by far like his closest relationship with the firm was with Guthrie and with Len Garment.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through some of the most notable clients and cases. You list a couple in your book, Pepsi, Mitsui & Company, National Bulk Carriers, Paper Mate. What was the nature of Nixon’s work at the firm, especially on some of these notable cases that you mention?
Victor Li: Sure. Well, his main function was to bring in business. He wasn’t so much a courtroom lawyer, even though he did have a training as a litigator. And he had worked as a litigator early in his career. And he had actually had a pretty decent reputation as a trial lawyer when he had practiced law before being elected to the Congress. But, his main function was really just to bring in business. He was someone, like I said earlier, who knew everybody. He had a lot of friends who were business leaders in that sense, who liked him, and who were very much hoping that he would eventually run for president again. His main job was really to, kind of, bring those people into the firm.
Like Pepsi, for instance. During that famous showdown that he had with Khrushchev in Russia, it was over Pepsi. Pepsi was one of the things that helped spark it. And ultimately Pepsi got a lot of good PR from that because at one point, Khrushchev drank a Pepsi on camera and said that he thought it tasted good. So, the CEO of Pepsi, Don Kendall, was very much indebted to Nixon. And he let it be known when Nixon was looking for jobs in New York, “Anyone that hires Nixon will get my business too.” And Pepsi, obviously, is a client that any law firm would kill for because they’re a huge company. They have all kinds of matters that would bring in all kinds of money, and all kinds of work, and whatnot.
That was really what he did as far as his legal career. He was just really someone that would just bring in business, be a magnet for the firm. Be something like a public face for the firm and bring in clients. But, that being said, he actually did handle substantive cases. And the biggest one obviously, was Time v. Hill Supreme Court case. That wasn’t a case where he was just kind of swooping for the argument and then just reciting a bunch of lines and then taking off.
He had to work really hard to, like, learn what the case was about, to memorize the record, to understand like what laws were at stake. Understand how to craft an argument to appeal to a majority of the justices on the Supreme Court. Many of whom he was convinced, didn’t like him very much. So the Time v. Hill case was an instance where he kind of showed his lawyerly side and his ability to be not just a meticulous preparer, but someone who could also go onto the big stage of the Supreme Court and deliver an oral argument that was fairly well received.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through that a little bit? Some of the details about the case and Nixon’s meticulous work on that, and ultimately what was the outcome of that case?
Victor Li: The Time v. Hill case was a First Amendment… well, it wasn’t a First Amendment case I guess. It was a very high profile kidnapping and like home invasion case that had occurred when a bunch of escape convicts had broken into someone’s house nearby and then taken them hostage for a few hours before escaping. And it became dramatized.
First, the incident got a lot of publicity with newspapers, and the media, and whatnot. And then once that died down then it inspired a lot of plays, movies, and things along those lines that were kind of similar to it but, maybe not like direct reenactments of it.
The most famous was “The Desperate Hours,” which was a movie starring, Humphrey Bogart and, I think Fredric March, that dramatized the incident, but also, kind of, changed some of the details as well, so it wasn’t like a direct reenactment of it. What happened was the family didn’t like any of this because they just wanted to be left alone. And actually, they had to, like, relocate at one point because there was so much interest in the case. Like, people were coming to the house and be like, “Oh, that’s the house where it took place.” “This is where this happened, or this is where this happened.” So, they actually had to move. The last straw for them happened when “Life” magazine printed an article in one of their issues, where they kind of reenacted the case, like on their pages because I mean, obviously they were known for having the great photographs.
What they did was that, in preparation for the premiere of the play version, they had like members of the cast go to the actual house and kind of reenact parts of the play and it was billed as, “Oh, this is a reenactment of what actually happened that night when these escaped convicts broke into the house.” This outraged the family and they sued because they said, “That’s not what happened. This isn’t true. This is the dramatization of what we went through.” And so, they sued. And the firm took the case. One of the plaintiffs was a friend of Guthrie’s. And so, Guthrie assigned the case to Garment. And then, Garment handled the case all through its trial stages. But then when it got to the Supreme Court, he thought it would be a great idea for Nixon to take the Supreme Court argument.
And this is an issue that had always been near and dear to Nixon’s heart as someone who had clashed with the media for a long time. Who had had his battles with them and whatnot. This case appealed to him for a couple of reasons. One, that he could show that he was standing up for the little guy against the intrusive press. But also, this was also a chance for him to show what a great lawyer he was. What a great advocate he was. And if he’d won a case before the Supreme Court one that was fairly, like I said [inaudible 00:30:42] pull up where a lot of the justices were probably predisposed to not liking him very much. That would show that he was a winner. That he was someone who had accomplished everything there was to accomplish in the legal field and kind of rehabilitate his image, heading into the ’68 election, which is where his head was at, at that point. Because he still has that loser label, kind of hanging over his head after result of ’60 and ’62.
But anyway what he did was that as he was traveling the country, campaigning for various people senate races, gubernatorial races, congressional races, everything along those lines while he was traveling on the plane or on the bus, he would just start meticulously preparing for his argument. He memorized the entire case file. He sat there and jotted down, like, all kinds of notes and strategies. And like he read like all kinds of treatises related to First Amendment rights and free speech and privacy. He worked very closely with a team of associates, bouncing ideas off them. They would draft memos and he would comment on them. Sometimes they would talk about trying to craft their arguments to appeal to certain justices and things along those lines. So, he was very involved. And it was a very busy time for him just because he had to balance that with his campaigning.
There’s an interesting story that came out a few years ago, where he actually won the case originally, but it got put over. And then in the interim, one of the justices behind the scenes kind of lobbied kind of did his best to try to change the result of the case to get people over to his side. And then, when they reargued the case the following year, and the justices ended up voting and he ended up losing. So it was a case that he was kind of upset about that he lost. There’s a quote in there saying that “He should have known that he would never be able to… He would never be permitted to win a big appeal against the press.”
And for the longest time, it was something that he didn’t like to talk about. Like, actually, I think in one of his books, he doesn’t even mention the case, even though he talks about freedom of speech and right to privacy, and things on those lines. So, it seemed like it was a sore point for him for the longest time just with regards to how it turned out.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talk about privacy and the First Amendment. What was the core of Richard Nixon’s argument?
Victor Li: Right. I mean, basically, his argument was that because “Life” lied about what happened, then they weren’t entitled to protection. Because their argument was obviously freedom of speech, First Amendment, we’re allowed to write about these things. But his argument was because they lied about it, then that puts it outside the First Amendment, and they’re not entitled to protection. And one of the things that he did was that he really tried to appeal to the justices’ sense of injustice. “This is not right, what happened to this family. They didn’t ask for any of this.”
He knew that a couple of the justices on the court had had negative experiences with the press. Like Earl Warren, for instance, who was chief justice, but he had previously been governor of California and he and Nixon had been enemies for the longest time. But he said before the argument, “Earl Warren’s going to vote with us because he knows what it’s like to have his name dragged through the mud. He knows what it’s like to have his family get hounded like this. And he’s got to understand that it’s not fair.”
And there were a couple of other justices on the court who were known to be liberals, when it came to the First Amendment, I guess for lack of a better term. But he felt like he could peel them off just by appealing to their sense of this wasn’t right, what happened to this family. They got dealt a bad hand by life, not the magazine. But then “Life” the magazine, came in and made it worse. That was sort of the essence of his argument that because it was a lie it’s not protected by the First Amendment. But ultimately it was a case where there were other issues at play as well besides that. But one thing that the court focused on when they finally handed down the decision was that the First Amendment is something that’s really important to this country, obviously it’s terrible what the family went through, but it goes too far if we start censoring magazines and newspapers, not letting them write about things that have a legitimate news value.
And basically the standard for proving libel at that point it was already pretty high. And so, this case just kind of continued that expansive kind of reading of the First Amendment… it would be very difficult for an individual plaintiff to be able to make out that they had been damaged as a result of something that the press had printed.
Jonathan Movroydis: You write that sometimes it wasn’t Nixon’s political connections that were needed by the law firm, but his political skills. Could you touch upon this a little bit?
Victor Li: When he was practicing law, a lot of people would write to him, obviously looking for his political advice just because obviously, he was a great politician. He was someone who understood the game. And so a lot of it very often was people who would just ask him for help with regards to how to get out of a sticky situation, or how to deal with a politically difficult issue. Like there was one client that he had, his name is Patrick Frawley. He was president of Eversharp and he previously run Paper Mate. And that company would eventually become Schick Razor. So pretty big client. And he was someone who was very conservative. He was very outspoken anticommunist. I think, one of his plants had got nationalized in Cuba, so he was upset about losing that.
So, he was someone who was very interested in U.S. policy towards Cuba and what would happen going forward. And he was someone who liked Nixon. He was outraged when he lost the 1962 gubernatorial race and how the press kind of piled on him afterwards. He was someone who really valued Nixon’s friendship and his opinion. And so, he was going through, like, he had a political matter that he was dealing with, where I think, like a talk show host had accused him of being anti-Semite. Someone who was tied to anti-Semitic groups throughout the country. He sent a series of letters to Nixon asking him, “Okay, well, how do I deal with this? Can I sue this guy? what are my options here?”
And so, Nixon obviously understood what he was going through. But he also understood and this was before the Hill case. But he understood how difficult it was to prevail on these kinds of lawsuits. So he through Tom Evans actually had come up with memos, and letters, and whatnot, telling him what his options were as far as legal options, but then also public relations wise. Like, how you can deal with this because it’s difficult to prove to prevail in these kind of lawsuits. And this is something that could probably be handled just by making a statement or just making your views clear and things like that.
Other times for instance, one of his clients was a very well-known sugar magnate in this country. His name was William Pauley. And he was also someone who was kind of like Frawley, and the names kind of sound similar, now I think about it. But he was similar to Frawley in the sense that like, he had also lost one of his factories during the Cuban revolution. He was very interested in the future of this country with regards to Cuba, but also anti-communism, and things along those lines.
But, he had a very specific problem because he had the sugar cane fields and because of restrictions in the law, because of quotas and whatnot that were mandated by Congress, he couldn’t farm or he couldn’t harvest a certain amount of that or use a certain amount of his land to be able to grow the sugar. And so, he was looking for Nixon’s skills as a politician to figure out how to navigate Congress and try to get them to lift these quotas.
So very often it was things like that. Just what do I do for this? What do I do for that? I have this political problem, can you tell me how to fix it? And he was obviously, very good at that. Something he had dealt with for so many years, and that he had skills with, and he knew the people that were in power. So he was someone that was very valuable to have in your Rolodex, if you’re a corporate titan like a William Pauley or a Patrick Frawley.
Jonathan Movroydis: Richard Nixon was an avid Asia watcher. He went on foreign study trips. He wrote that famous article in “Foreign Affairs” magazine” in 1967, October of that year, “Asia After Viet Nam.” You talk a little bit in your book about an initiative to expand the firm’s presence in Asia, specifically Japan. Can you touch upon this initiative just a little bit?
Victor Li: Law firms were always looking to expand. The more countries you are going to be in the more companies you can get onto the billing invoices and things along those lines. It’s always a good problem to have. I mean, it can be a problem obviously, if you expand too much or if you expand incorrectly. The law firms ultimately most of them, at least the big ones are always looking to get bigger. So, he hit upon an idea that actually not a lot of firms were doing at the time. At least not a lot of American firms were doing at the time to open a Nixon, Mudge office in Japan. They had a lot of clients in Japan. Mitsui was probably the biggest one. But also companies like Pepsi were always looking, at the time, they were actively trying to expand into Asia. And that was one of the reasons why.
Very often on his trips to Asia for the firm, they would double as fact-finding fact missions for him, so that he could talk to foreign dignitaries. He could meet with powerful people abroad, especially in Asia where the Vietnam War was going on. And like in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. But, they would also kind of function as business trips for him, so that he could try and advance the interests of a company like Pepsi that was trying to expand its markets.
So, he came upon this idea to open an office in Tokyo that would help so that they could better serve their Asian centric clients like Pepsi, like Mitsui, and those kind of companies. So they could get advice immediately rather than have to wait until they got word back from New York, or DC, or Paris. The problem with that was that Japan, at the time, had very restrictive laws as to who could practice law in the country. You had to pass their bar exam, which was very, very difficult. And you also had to be admitted to practice law there, which was very difficult. And also just culturally Japan is one of those countries that’s people are very proud of the heritage. It was sort of frowned upon culturally to embrace, like, a western firm when there was a perfectly good Japanese firm that could handle your matters for you.
But still Nixon came up with this idea of partnering with a firm in Japan, an existing firm, so, they would be able to handle matters that arose for their clients. For Nixon, Mudge clients in Asia. And based on his papers, it looks like they talked to a few people. They tried to get something going and tried to make this happen. But ultimately, it was something that was too difficult. The regulatory hurdles were too high. And ultimately, something that they decided not to do. And eventually, some firms would do this, be able to open offices in Japan, and whatnot either through the joint venture idea, combining with a local firm, or opening on their own. And actually, the Mudge firm would end up opening a Japanese office, but not until 1991.
That just shows you how difficult it was. Just how prohibitive some of the regulations were. But it also shows that he was kind of ahead of the curve because now, , it’s very common for the big law firms to have not just one office in Japan but multiple offices there, or in China, or in Taiwan, and things along those lines. So, it’s something that would have been really interesting had he been able to pull it off. But given everything that was going on and just how difficult some of the rules and laws were, it would have been a pretty herculean undertaking for him.
Jonathan Movroydis: Ultimately, how did Nixon, Mudge feel about Richard Nixon’s ambitions to gear up for the presidential campaign in 1968?
Victor Li:I think everybody, kind of, knew that he wanted to run for president again. Even though he said at the time, “my political career is over. You wont have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and things along those lines. I think everyone still kind of knew that he was going to try again. And back then there had been plenty of candidates who had received the nomination again after losing before Edmund Dewey, Adlai Stevenson. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for Nixon to win the nomination. Again, this will be difficult, but it was something that I think most people at the firm kind of knew he was going to do. And mostly, they were okay with it because he produced for the firm. He brought in all these clients that wouldn’t have given Mudge the time of day if Nixon hadn’t been there. And they kind of took the attitude that what’s good for Nixon is good for the firm.
Because as long as the press thinks that he is a viable candidate, as long as they’re treating him as somewhat important, someone who’s worth getting comments on whenever anything happens at the White House or on Capitol Hill, or abroad, then that’s good publicity for the firm. Because they’ll always say they’ll always identify Richard Nixon in their stories as the senior partner at Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander. So, they kind of took the attitude that it was good PR for the firm. His ambitions could serve the firm and allowed them to grow, and it did.
They gave him all kinds of leeway when it came to recruiting his staff. When it came to bringing people in who weren’t lawyers, but were just there to help him with his political matters, like writing speeches, researching topics for him, or just planning his schedule, and things along those lines. So they very much benefited by their association with Nixon. But then conversely, once Nixon got in the White House and Watergate started raging, they kind of suffered because of their association with Nixon. Because, I mean obviously they were known as Richard Nixon’s firm and John Mitchell’s firm.
And so once Watergate started raging, then they paid the price as far as attorney defections, as far as client defections, having a bad reputation on Wall Street. Even though they weren’t accused of anything they weren’t implicated in anything, but you don’t want that association at that point. The association was good for a long time, but now it was bad.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Victor Li, author of “Nixon in New York.” Our topic was Richard Nixon’s life in New York in the 1960s and his work as an attorney for a major law firm. Victor Li, thank you so much for joining us.
Victor Li: No, thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts @nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.