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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.

Americans know more about the Nixon regime than they do past administrations (or will future administrations) thanks to Nixon's secret taping and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman's secret diary. Rosen goes further by uncovering previously unpublished notes taken by Haldeman, augmented by his own interviews. If there were any vestigial doubt that Nixon led a band of blackguards, this book removes it.

But what was Mitchell's role? He did not share Nixon the politician's "longing for universal approval," Rosen writes, and "dutifully .  .  . played his assigned role as the disciplinarian, imposer of law and order against radical chic, the dour authoritarian face of Nixon's counterrevolution against hippies, pushers and protesters." In return, Nixon is described as "scheming to make [Mitchell] take the rap for a crime--Watergate--in which Mitchell bore no responsibility."

However, Rosen does not take his subject off the hook. While Mitchell was "framed, casualty of a wicked alliance between conspirators eager to tell lies and prosecutors eager to tell them," Rosen acknowledges "that Mitchell played a role is indisputable."

The overriding question is: What happened when G. Gordon Liddy presented the Gemstone plan to break the law in the interest of confounding the Democrats, without specifically including the Watergate burglary? Rosen's judgment: "Mitchell never ordered the Watergate operation, never even heard a proposal targeting that site, but he'd sat at the pinnacle of American law enforcement and twice listened to Gordon Liddy propose similar crimes and never ordered Liddy arrested or fired." His "paramount concern," Rosen writes, was that "the three meetings at which the Gemstone plan was presented to him should never be disclosed" because that would endanger Nixon's chances for a second term.

Mitchell later testified: "I had no obligation to come down and inform the grand jury voluntarily."

That defiance reflects Mitchell's constricted view that being attorney general made him primarily the president's lawyer, assigned to assure Nixon's reelection in 1972. Rosen rationalizes this mindset by contending that Mitchell "never wielded power in arrogant fashion," using it "to advance the greater good, which he happened to see as indistinguishable from the fortunes of Richard Nixon." Mitchell's "achievements at Justice were momentous," and he stepped in "when he saw Nixon's darker impulses threatening the nation." Rosen contends that "working behind the scenes, Mitchell reinforced the most progressive racial policy he could without damaging the reelection fortunes of his 'client.'"

But, in truth, that policy was never very progressive, and Rosen's reporting often puts Mitchell on the dark side. When the attorney general wanted to forcibly remove antiwar veterans from the Mall after they refused to obey a court injunction, Nixon intervened by citing the political disaster of President Herbert Hoover sending in the Army against the Bonus Marchers in 1932. Rosen reveals "a furious row" between Nixon and Mitchell, with the president prevailing.

Because Rosen is regarded as a Watergate revisionist, this book was awaited with anticipation for the "secrets of Watergate" promised in the subtitle. The book's prologue teases with provocative questions: "What role did CIA and the intelligence community at large play in Watergate?" And "Were Nixon and his men forced to pay a price for their embrace of détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with Red China?" Rosen does not answer those questions, or even pose them again over the rest of The Strong Man, except to say that Mitchell went to his grave saying, "The CIA was behind the whole thing."

If the author wanted to rehabilitate Mitchell's reputation, as he suggests he does, he has failed. In reporting and writing about Mitchell for many years, I saw him as a nasty piece of work. I still do after reading The Strong Man, despite Rosen's depiction of Mitchell's warmer side, particularly his exemplary conduct in prison helping fellow convicts.

On balance, Rosen's unfailingly honest reportage reveals a man of bad character. Hard pressed for funds as a disbarred ex-convict, Mitchell signed a $150,000 (big money 35 years ago) contract with Simon & Schuster for his memoirs. It was a swindle, because Mitchell (in the words of his lawyer, William Hundley) "wouldn't write about Watergate, and he wouldn't write about [his wife] Martha." That meant Mitchell never delivered a page to the publisher, who went to court for a partial settlement.

Even more disturbing is the account of his relationship with Martha Mitchell, described by Rosen as "a sick, mean, and ignorant woman, roiling with vanity and insecurity, demeaning to people who she considered beneath her, and prone .  .  . to violent bursts of alcoholism." The author writes that her "initial attraction" to Mitchell in what started as "an extramarital affair" could be found in "adultery's usual draws: sex, excitement, illicit adventure." But after their marriage had collapsed, Mitchell explained why his eight-year prison sentence was not so severe: "They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha."

That heartless remark about a troubled woman whom he had treated with patience was the tough-guy façade that put Richard Nixon, Rosen writes, "in awe of Mitchell." When Mitchell said that "this country is going so far right you are not even going to recognize it," and advised Nixon not to address black publishers because "you can buy these monkeys anyway," he was feeding Nixon's worst prejudices--not saving the president from his baser instincts, as The Strong Man implies.

James Rosen tries to make the point that John Mitchell "somehow" stood "fundamentally apart from the criminality of the Nixon administration," but he does not really make that case, even while producing an engrossing account of a flawed regime whose secrets do not fail to shock us almost four decades later.

Robert D. Novak, syndicated columnist and Fox News analyst, is the author, most recently, of The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.