Richard Nixon: The Whittier Washout
By James Attridge
You can look it up. It’s on the bookshelf of your libraryâthat is, if you work at a firm that still has a library, or books, or shelves. The very first paragraph of Schee v. Holt (1942) 56 Cal.App.2d 364, 365, details how Richard M. Nixon, the "outside man" at the firm of Wingert and Bewley, bollixed the very first legal matter he ever handled. His boss, Thomas Bewley, sent him to handle an execution sale. Like a lamb to the slaughter, Nixon asked opposing counsel for advice about what to do. Nixon bid $2,245 to purchase the home of his client’s deadbeat uncle, because that was the amount Bewley had won from the court. As fate would have it, there were other liens on the deadbeat’s house, and Nixon bought his client a property saddled with debt, and the dead-beat’s lawyer got a satisfaction of judgment. Litigation ensued. Years later, in his memoir Witness to Power, John Ehrlichman, who had been a successful land use lawyer in Seattle, remembered that Nixon’s "understanding of real estate conveyancing was sparse."
By the time Nixon learned of the published opinion in the Schee case, he and his wife Pat had already left Whittier and relocated to the East Coast. The first four years of Nixon’s legal career were an unhappy mess, and he even contemplated moving to Cuba to start all over. When he ran for Congress in 1946, Nixon peddled the narrative that he was a young lawyer who had left Whittier to go to war. In fact, he had blown town months before Pearl Harbor.