Nixon Mudge (BOOK EXCERPT)

Date
Dec, 16, 2017

Four months after his “last press conference,” Richard Nixon seemed to be making good on his vow to leave politics. A few days before St. Patrick’s Day in 1963, he had a job interview with several partners from the Wall Street law firm Mudge, Stern, Baldwin & Todd. The last time he had interviewed with a white-shoe law firm in New York, he had been a law student and, like many aspiring lawyers before and after him, he had squeezed into an interview suit he hardly ever wore and sat, nervously, in the waiting room of the managing partner’s office hoping to distinguish himself from the hundreds of competitors equally desperate for the job.

This was a different type of interview.

The former vice president and his future law partners played a round at the Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey in a game that was part job interview, part recruiting pitch from the firm that would soon bear his name. The interview was hardly a formality, though. John Alexander, tax group leader at the firm and one of Mudge’s most important partners, was skeptical. After all, this wasn’t Nixon’s first go-around in the legal field. After losing the presidential election in 1960, Nixon had returned home to California and joined the firm of Adams, Duque & Hazeltine. While there, he had spent more time writing his memoirs and campaigning for governor than practicing law or bringing in clients. Alexander was worried about history repeating itself and wanted to know what the firm would get out of hiring Nixon.

“Dick,” Alexander said while enjoying a round of drinks with the former vice president on the so-called nineteenth hole at the golf course. “I’ve always admired you and feel that you are a man of great competence—except on the golf course.” After some good-natured laughter from the rest of the party, Alexander then got to the point. “You could bring a lot to our firm. But I wouldn’t be honest with you or myself if I didn’t say that I have a significant reservation about your coming with us.” Alexander then brought up the Adams Duque experience and told Nixon that “scant attention was paid to the practice of law” and that “the experience was a huge disappointment to most of your partners.” Alexander then paused before driving home his main point. “We don’t want to go through that here.”

It was a stunning moment for Nixon and Elmer Bobst, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Warner-Lambert Corporation, Mudge’s biggest client. Bobst, a close friend of Nixon’s, had been the one who had suggested the union between Nixon and Mudge in the first place. Neither was used to being questioned, and Bobst, who had come to Baltusrol thinking that deal was already done, sat in stone-faced silence as Alexander conducted his inquiry.

The other Mudge partners sat, grim faced and stoic, as they watched Nixon, intently, to see how he might react. Nixon, however, handled the situation deftly. His tenure with Adams Duque had been distorted, he argued. For one thing, he and law firm leader Earl Adams had agreed, beforehand, that Nixon would be allowed to juggle his law practice with writing his memoirs and running for governor. As for his main point, however, Nixon understood where Alexander was coming from. “Do I intend to spend my time practicing or will I be dabbling in politics?” Nixon asked rhetorically. “The answer is I intend to devote my full time to the firm.” Nixon then referenced the last press conference and reiterated that he was through with politics. “John, if you knew anything about politics, you would know that a politician does not change his base,” Nixon said. “I made my intentions known fairly emphatically in my ‘last press conference.’ Those words were crystal clear, John, but my actions are even more so. A politician does not give up his base.”

The answer seemed to satisfy Alexander, who promptly dropped his reservations about Nixon joining the firm. It’s not clear whether he noticed that Nixon’s answer was hardly unequivocal in its nature, and gave him plenty of wiggle room should he decide to make a political comeback in the future. In other words, it was a perfect response from a lawyer.

Nixon didn’t really have much of a legal resume to speak of. He had spent much of his adult life running for office and serving in Washington. While he was a lawyer by training, he had only practiced law for approximately seven years. Four-and-half of those years had been spent at Wingert and Bewley in Whittier, while his time as a lawyer with the Office of Price Administration had lasted a mere eight months before World War II hit and he enlisted in the navy. The other two years came after his defeat in the 1960 presidential race when he returned to California and worked at Adams, Duque & Hazeltine.

“When I first ran for Congress, [Adams Duque lead partner] Earl Adams had lived in my district,” Nixon recalled. “And he said: ‘In the event you lose, I will give you a place in my firm.’ This was in 1947. So, when I went to Adams Duque fourteen years later, I said: ‘I’m finally accepting your offer because I now find myself qualified.’”

As Alexander had alluded to during that initial meeting with Nixon at the Baltusrol Golf Club, Nixon had, essentially, been a part-timer at Adams Duque. Nixon’s response to Alexander had also been correct. He had chosen to join Earl Adams’s firm, in large part, because Adams, a prominent, politically connected lawyer, had offered a less demanding “of counsel” role instead of a full partnership, giving him plenty of time to write his memoirs and prepare for another run for office, either as governor in 1962 or president in 1964. It was an offer Nixon couldn’t refuse. In fact, he even turned down an offer from Thomas Dewey to join Dewey Ballantine, as well as an equity partnership with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the firm that had given his Senate political fund a clean bill of legal health. “Gibson Dunn made a very, very good offer,” said Nixon. “Full partnership and so forth and so on. But it required [me to work] full time.” He also turned down another intriguing possibility: Major League Baseball. Both the players and the owners were considering him to be the next commissioner. “That was very tough to turn down because I was a sports man,” Nixon recalled. “But I finally decided not to do that.”

As a result of his arrangement with Adams, the firm would never be Nixon’s main priority. “I did very little on the legal side,” Nixon admitted. “I was running for governor, and I had very little time for law.” One area where Nixon did help the firm was on the business end. During his short tenure at Adams, Duque & Hazeltine, Nixon brought in a tremendous amount of business that, under different circumstances, would have put him on the fast track to making partner.

[With his bleak political circumstances and decision to abandon his California base, Nixon was in a much different situation in 1963 than he had been two years earlier.] [Mudge partner Milton] Rose and his partners were satisfied with Nixon’s vow to put the firm first that they responded in kind. After pounding out some of the finer details of his joining the firm in Nixon’s suite at the Waldorf Towers on May 2, 1963, the two sides officially united with Nixon getting top billing as the new public partner. The partners agreed that Mudge’s name would go second and the other partners would draw their names out of a hat to see where they fell on the masthead. Milton Rose won the drawing, with Bob Guthrie’s name coming out next. John Alexander’s name would come at the end.

Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander was officially born on January 1, 1964.

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