The Magazine

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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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 Rosen goes further by uncovering previously unpublished notes taken by Haldeman, augmented by his own interviews.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.