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Big Bad John

Nixon's attorney general deserves his reputation.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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The Strong Man

John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate

by James Rosen

Doubleday, 640 pp., $35

James Rosen, an accomplished television correspondent now with Fox News, is familiar with his trade's practice of finishing stories with a kicker that surprises the viewer by presenting something different. So, to conclude the first biography of John Mitchell, Rosen's last two paragraphs on pages 498-99 contain a shocker about the Nixon campaign manager and attorney general who went to prison in the Watergate scandal.

Rosen concludes by relating what Mitchell--"disgraced, disbarred, an ex-convict fresh out prison"--in 1979 told his Justice Department press secretary Jack Landau, who asked what Mitchell would have done differently in his lifetime if he could. Mitchell told Landau a story of how, in 1960, long before Mitchell connected with Richard Nixon, he was paid an unscheduled visit at his Manhattan law offices by Robert F. Kennedy. Mitchell kept him waiting, and "Kennedy didn't like that."

As Rosen relates the story:

Kennedy said he understood Mitchell was an important man with contacts in nearly all 50 states. How did he feel about helping to run his brother John's presidential campaign? Mitchell demurred. Kennedy was undeterred. He started waving around documents, suggesting it would be in Mitchell's interests--and those of his clients--if he reconsidered. With that Mitchell threw the younger man out of his office.

Then Mitchell said, "If I had it all over to do, I'd run Jack Kennedy's campaign."

After being told repeatedly in The Strong Man of Mitchell's loyalty to Richard Nixon even at the cost of prison ("he asked Watergate prosecutors to cease their pursuit of the president in exchange for his own guilty plea"), the reader is unprepared for this unfulfilled Kennedy yearning.

The problem is that I don't believe the incident ever happened. I knew Bobby Kennedy well enough to feel it would be totally out of character to ask a total stranger to help "run" his brother's campaign, or to emotionally explode in front of that stranger. An anecdote as juicy as Bobby Kennedy getting thrown out of John Mitchell's office surely would have surfaced in gossipy Washington during the past 48 years. I do believe Landau told Rosen the story in an interview for this book, and I rely on Landau's reputation for integrity as a career journalist to be sure he accurately reported what his former boss told him.

But I think Mitchell made it up. The principal new insight I drew from The Strong Man was that John Mitchell was a serial liar who had trouble knowing what was true. The Nixon administration was filled with world-class liars, including the president himself, and Mitchell was not the worst of them. Rosen makes a convincing case that perjured testimony, especially from White House aides John Dean and Jeb Magruder, formed the basis of the case that made Mitchell "the highest-ranking government official ever to serve [prison] time." But this book does not evade the reality that Mitchell also lied repeatedly--lied under oath, lied in interviews, and lied in private conversation.

Rosen conceals nothing. Mitchell's account of alleged boyhood misadventures, tossing schoolbooks in the fire when his school caught on fire, and later burning down his family's home with Fourth of July sparklers, was pure fiction. In extolling Nixon's virtues during a 1971 interview with the conservative journalist Frank van der Linden, Mitchell was "baldly propounding things he knew to be untrue." He "never fully disclosed what he knew--what the declassified tapes showed he knew" about "complicity" by Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in the Pentagon brass's "espionage" against President Nixon. Mitchell was trying to avoid a scandalous court martial of the admiral; but as late as 1982 Mitchell told a "disbelieving" Seymour Hersh that Moorer was "totally uninvolved and blameless." It was "a blatant lie" when he denied talking to Nixon about the ITT Corporation, lying about his role in the ITT scandal because he "never imagined evidence would surface."

Therein lies a major difficulty for this book. Rosen harbors admiration for a public figure "notorious for his inscrutability" and suggests Mitchell was the victim of "ritual sacrifice" demanded by "the times" and the New York Times. Yet, Rosen is too honest a reporter to conceal the defects of his subject in research that includes the author's interviews dating back to the 1990s.