For some time yesterday, the courtroom of Senior U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn took on the air of an auction house.
After a videotape was shown of President Richard M. Nixon giving his resignation speech, an attorney for Nixon's estate rose to declare that a copy of that speech and its earlier drafts would have fetched $200,000 on the open market.
The former president's 1969 "Silent Majority" speech? $90,250, said the attorney, R. Stan Mortenson.
A collection of office papers by Nixon's "significant seven" advisers, including former chief of staff H.R. Haldeman? $942,000.
Mortenson's presentation came during final arguments in a lawsuit in which the estate of the former president, who died in 1994, seeks $213 million from the federal government for his White House tapes, photographs and papers. The items at issue include everything from Nixon's State of the Union addresses to his handwritten memos to the "smoking gun" audiotape that tied him to the coverup of the Watergate break-in and ultimately led to his downfall.
Mortenson contended that the material, representing "five and a half years of a president's inner workings," was worth $35 million when it was seized by the federal government following Nixon's resignation 25 years ago, and that the former president's estate is now entitled to that money with compound interest.
The Justice Department has accused the estate of attempting to cash in on Nixon's misdeeds and argued against paying any compensation to his estate, which consists of his two daughters and the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation. Among other things, government lawyers argued that Nixon intended that his materials be kept in a single historical archive and that no market existed for them in 1974.
Neil H. Koslowe, a Justice Department attorney, also said the estate's lawyers were "cherry-picking" the most valuable items in an effort to justify a wildly inflated claim. Koslowe said some videotapes in the collection were worth nothing but salvage value and that hundreds of Nixon photographs were unsigned "grip and grin" pictures worth "a dime a dozen."
Even though the materials were in federal custody, Koslowe said that Nixon had access to them and was able to "exploit" them to earn $2.3 million for his memoirs and $600,000 for a paid television interview in 1977. He said the estate was entitled to nothing more, arguing that the judge should "not reward them one red cent for the right to destroy a nation's legacy."
The final arguments came after a flurry of filings in a lawsuit that has stretched nearly 20 years. Penn heard more than five months of testimony on the issue in a trial that ended last spring, mostly about the "fair market value" of the items. He did not say yesterday when he will rule on the case.