For my blog post today about Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Morris says on pages 191-192. The context is Richard Nixon’s time as a lawyer in Whittier.
“Though Schee was defeated on the two appeals, and [Nixon’s] own lack of skill or authority in the original case ruled beside the point by the higher court, Richard Nixon’s ‘alleged misconduct’ would be inscribed in the California appellate records summarizing the later cases. It was all uncomfortably reminiscent of some of the sharp practice he had denounced not so long before in his Duke legal ethics paper.”
The case in question is that of Marie Schee. Schee’s uncle and aunt, Otto and Jennevieve Steuer, owed her $2,000, and the firm where Nixon was working represented her. An arrangement was made for the Steuers to repay Schee through the sale of their house. Nixon asked the Steuers’ attorney for advice on how to go about this, and the attorney recommended that Nixon bid for the house all of the amount of money that the Steuers owed to Schee. Nixon did so, without consulting his client. But there was a problem: Nixon did not check to see if other people had liens or mortgages in the house. It turned out that there were actually other people who held trusts on it. The outcome of all this was that the house got sold, but Schee did not get repayed. Later on, the small firm where Nixon worked settled out of court a malpractice suit by Schee and her parents (who had been aiming to buy the house then resell it to get their daughter’s money, yet they were outbid), paying them $4,800. But the matter did not end there, for Schee and the Steuers continued to dispute about whether the Steuers still owed Schee the money.
I can’t say that I understand all of this, nor do I want to wrack my brain trying to understand it. I’m also not entirely sure where Nixon was unethical, or fell short of the high ethical standard that he outlined in his legal ethics paper at Duke. He seems to me to have been more naive and negligent than unethical. Or was the problem that he failed to consult his client before acting on her behalf?
In any case, the idea that Nixon would later fall short of his ideals at Duke Law School appears more than once in Morris’ book. On pages 173-174, Morris discusses a paper that Duke Law student Richard Nixon wrote about the need to provide free legal services to the poor. Nixon in that paper lamented that “the influential client gains at the expense of the poor”, and he said that “the lawyer, ideally, is a public servant” (Nixon’s words). Morris goes on to say: “In November 1936, he argued passionately much the same evidence for inequity, much the same case for free legal services to the poor, that Richard Nixon as President of the United States would heatedly deny and reject thirty-five years later.”
On page 177, Morris talks about Nixon’s arguments about race with southerners at Duke. Nixon was outraged by the racial segregation that he saw around him (Duke is in North Carolina), and southern students at Duke recalled Nixon’s strong, unyielding stance. Nixon in his memoirs says that, while he disagreed with the southerners, he came to respect their patriotism, pride, and “interest in national issues”, and that years after his time at Duke he “felt strongly that it was time to bring the South back into the Union” (Nixon’s words). Morris goes on to say, with a tone that strikes me as rather sarcastic: “But that was written long after the fact, by an ex-President who had revolutionized party politics in the American South by a naked and brilliant calculus of issues and electoral votes that had little to do with arguments beneath Durham’s Gothic spires in the mid-1930s.”