Attorney General John Mitchell was convicted on charges of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice in the Watergate case. photo: NARA
In mid-October, President Nixon was evaluating William Mulligan, former dean of Fordham Law School in New York, as a potential nominee. The president was getting political pressure to appoint a Catholic to the Court. Nixon knew, however, that in the eyes of the Bar Association, Fordham did not have the cache of an Ivy League school. Speaking with Attorney General John Mitchell, Nixon wondered - in frustration - whether Mulligan would pass muster.
President Nixon: I mean, I just don't know. Is it? Are we too concerned about this mediocre business with him?...Say, after all he's a dean of a law school.... I like the fact it isn't the number one law school. Goddamnit, I didn't go to a number one law school, John. Ah, where'd you go? You go to Harvard?
John Mitchell: Not recently.
JM: As a matter of fact, I was touted off going to Harvard.
RMN: Well, the whole point is that this number one law school bullshit is getting me down a little, isn't it you?
JM: It has for about thirty years. They just don't produce the product.
RMN: Well sure, look, you've seen a lot of Harvard men around, they're soft in the head. And they don't work as hard. But, now, this Fordham man may be all right. I've seen some pretty good Fordham graduates, haven't you?
JM: Yes, I have. As a matter of fact, they're spread all over the Northeast and doing a hell of a lot better than the people from Harvard.
Surely Nixon knew that John Mitchell was a Fordham graduate. Nixon himself earned his law degree from Duke University.
As press leaks and public speculation mounted over who Nixon would nominate, the President was under increasing pressure to make a decision. Finally, on October 18, Richard Nixon decided on his two Supreme Court nominees: the highly respected Virginia attorney, Lewis Powell, and Tennessee Senator, Howard Baker. But while waiting for the men to consider the president's offer, John Mitchell floated another candidate, a relatively unknown Justice Department lawyer named William Rehnquist. Nixon and Mitchell spoke on the night of October 19.
President Nixon: Hello?
Mitchell: Yes, Mr. President.
RMN: I still haven't heard from Powell. I've just left a call in just a few minutes ago but -
JM: I wonder if he's in transit?
RMN: Well, he's been in transit for quite awhile.
JM: Yeah, you can say that. I haven't heard back from Howard Baker yet either, although he said he'd call me back before five. I guess he's searching his soul.
JM: Another thought's occurred to me, Mr. President. If we can't get Baker and Powell doesn't pan out, you might consider this Bill Rehnquist over here that everybody is so high on.
RMN: Mmm, huh. Well, let me ask you -- what are his qualifications?
JM: Well, first of all -
RMN: He's an assistant attorney general.
JM: Yeah, in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel. In fact, Walsh has stated on a number of occasions, why in the hell don't you put up somebody like Rehnquist?
JM: So I think that would clear.
JM: He is, as I say, an arch-conservative. He was a great student, and a pretty tough guy.
RMN: Oh I understand that, but I mean - How about the qualifications thing, that's the thing?
JM: I would be inclined to believe that there would be no difficulties with it....Just a question of whether or not he'd fall under the category of distinction or not.