Facing impeachment and a possible criminal indictment, Richard M. Nixon knew on Aug. 8, 1974, that the following day he would resign the presidency.
But in those waning hours before his political power vanished, Nixon made three final court nominations. Among them was Donald Alsop, a New Ulm attorney who would be elevated to Minnesota’s U.S. District Court.
Alsop got word of the nomination that day, then went home to watch the man who nominated him go on television and tell the nation from the Oval Office that he would end his presidency the next day, brought down by the scandal of Watergate.
“It was a momentous event,” Alsop said of the resignation, surveying a spread of newspapers he collected from that day, with their towering “Nixon Resigns” headlines.
Alsop, now 86, has served as a federal judge ever since, rising to chief and presiding over such high profile cases as the Virginia Piper kidnapping, which involved a $1 million ransom for an Orono woman, and the Dalkon Shield lawsuit.
He owes his career to Nixon’s last-minute efforts and a stroke of bipartisan help from a trio of Minnesota heavyweights: Democratic Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale and Republican Rep. Ancher Nelsen.
“What we did back then with Alsop, you wouldn’t hardly see anymore,” Mondale said.
Alsop doesn’t know why Nixon turned to sign his nomination on his last full day as president — it “was the last thing on his plate,” Alsop said — and can only speculate about his good fortune. He said Time Magazine reported Nixon did it to show the government was still running. Nixon historian Stanley Kutler said he’s surprised the nominations even went through, because Nixon “was a cooked goose at that time.”
A different era
In earlier years, Alsop was active in the Republican Party and in 1968 was a delegate to the Republican National Convention and co-chaired the Republican state convention in Duluth the same year. He was offered the post of Minnesota U.S. Attorney that year, but declined. When Alsop got serious about aiming for a judgeship, he swore off politics and as Watergate gathered strength, took no sides for fear of jeopardizing his chances.
Alsop said it was Nelsen who first nudged Nixon to make the appointment. In Alsop’s office hangs a photo that Alsop said captured Nelsen as he was speaking to Nixon, trying to convince him to nominate Alsop from among the 21 Minnesota lawyers vying for the spot.
But Nelsen, as a House member, could only do so much. Only senators vote to confirm.
Judge John Tunheim, who now serves on the Minnesota U.S. District Court, was an intern in Humphrey’s Washington office during the fall of that year. He remembers the question buzzing around the office. Alsop was nominated but not confirmed. What should they do with him? Tunheim said Humphrey and his administrative assistant, David Gartner, wanted to be fair and continue working for Alsop’s confirmation.
Humphrey and Mondale worked to shepherd the Nixon appointee through the Senate confirmation process, even offering a resolution to extend his nomination when a congressional recess could have let it expire. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, confirmed Alsop on Dec. 18, 1974. He started on the bench the following month.
A less polarized time
Mondale said Alsop was known as a good trial lawyer and turned out to be “one of the strong judges of our time.” Even back then, the sweeping approval across party lines for judge candidates was rare, Mondale said.
“There were very few nominations that had the kind of broad, bipartisan support that Alsop did,” Mondale said.
Humphrey’s son, Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III, said the bipartisan support defined a less polarized time. “In those days, at least people respected their qualities and their abilities,” he said. “It was much less partisan than it appears to be in these days.”
By July 1974, things were going badly for Nixon. At the end of the month, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the president to release the secret tapes he’d made of conversations in the Oval Office. On Aug. 5, Nixon did so, and the nation learned that its president had ordered the FBI to stop the Watergate investigation.
On Aug. 8, Alsop was working a trial in Windom, Minn. During a court recess, he got a call from his friend Nelsen. Nixon would nominate him to the federal bench.
Alsop’s office in the Warren E. Burger Federal Building and Courthouse in St. Paul is plastered with memorabilia from that day. Framed on his wall are his nomination letter signed by Nixon, a copy of Nixon’s resignation letter and a letter declaring his confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
On a coat rack in Alsop’s office hang mementos of a decades-long court career: His black judge robes, a wig made out of mops from a lawyer friend in New Ulm, and a baseball hat that reads “Chief.”
James Rosenbaum, who worked on the federal bench with Alsop for 25 years before retiring in 2010, said Alsop knew the rules well and always displayed great courtroom demeanor and control.
Alsop works two or three days a week now, and still officiates naturalization ceremonies. “It’s the best job in the world,” he said. “That’s the only way I can describe it.”
He also has a few words for the man who used his last hours in office to give him that job.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” Alsop said, “for providing a marvelous experience to me.”