Dour, stern — and framed: John Mitchell and Watergate
Ever try explaining in a few clear and specific sentences why a truly “transformational” president, Richard Nixon, was forced to resign? Three decades later, many of us are still trying to find satisfactory predicates for those sentences. They certainly don’t lie in the tapes, which only add to the confusion, depicting as they do an increasingly befuddled president taking time out from what he saw as his primary tasks — ending the war in Vietnam, solidifying detente with the Soviet Union, creating a new opening to China, saving Israel, coping with our first real energy crisis — trying to understand why what was accurately called “a third-rate” burglary required his attention, and what it had to do with him.
They broke into what? What on earth for? To bug Larry O’Brien’s phone? The CIA? Come on.
Why did it all happen, the breakin and the cover up? And who engineered it? In this fine biography of John Mitchell, attorney general from 1969 -1972, James Rosen provides some of the needed predicates, suggests others, and in the process gives us a strong and sensitive portrait of a man admired by both friends and antagonists for his loyalty and steadfastness.
Mr. Rosen quotes William Safire’s eloquent eulogy: “Dour, stern, taciturn, forbidding on the outside, and warm, loyal, staunch, steadfast on the inside . . . Few public men have so deliberately cultivated the widespread misconception of themselves”
“This schism persisted through Watergate,” writes Mr. Rosen, “the seismic scandal in which Mitchell, the advocate of expanded wiretapping powers who bore no responsibility for the bugging in question, was falsely cast as its most culpable figure.”
Who was culpable? According to Mr. Rosen, the prime mover of the pieces on the Watergate chessboard was John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, who ordered the second break-in and engineered the cover-up because of what documents and tapes might reveal about the activities of a call-girl ring.
As Mr. Rosen puts it: “Dean’s unique knowledge of all the players and their complex interconnections, documented exhaustively in the civil litigation he initiated to try to suppress the “call-girl theory” of Watergate, makes him the only logical answer in the three-decades-old mystery of who ordered the Watergate operation . . . .”
As the cover-up proceeded, and as it became clear that in the end someone would pay, Mr. Dean increasingly drew the lines of responsibility back to Mitchell and to the president himself, spinning a web that would entrap them both.
“The tapes show Mr. Dean ran circles around the president,” Mr. Rosen writes, “using his superior comprehension of the scandal to shape the topics discussed, options considered, and courses pursued . . . Chief among Dean’s deceptions was his implication of Mitchell. In his talks with Nixon, Dean was careful never to say explicitly that the former attorney general approved the break-in; but the counsel made his suspicions clear enough.”
“That Mitchell played a role is indisputable,” writes Mr. Rosen, “however it is equally true that the former attorney general was, in simplest terms, framed, casualty of a wicked alliance between coconspirators [chiefly, Mr. Dean and Jeb Magruder] eager to tell lies and prosecutors eager to believe them”
Mitchell resigned as head of the Committee to Re-elect the President in 1972, returning to the private sector, where he set out to repair his finances and survived the ITT and Vesco scandals. It had been a full life — semi-pro hockey player, Fordham law school (nights), partnership in a prestigious Wall Street firm, PT boat officer in WW II, running Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, serving as attorney general through the upheavals of the antiwar years and guiding Nixon through the Pentagon Papers minefield and the secret operation set up by the Joint Chiefs to spy on the president.
Mr. Rosen gives us a comprehensive look at these chapters in Mitchell’s life, including the emotionally draining marriage to Martha Mitchell. But in the end, the story centers on Watergate. Mitchell was convicted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury and in 1977 began serving what would be a 19-month sentence in the Federal Prison Camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., thus becoming the highest ranking federal official ever to serve time.
“On the winding path to his cell,” writes Mr. Rosen, “Mitchell visited offices where his own signature hung on the wall, conferring power on the same individuals who now welcomed him into federal custody.”
A decade later, on Nov. 9, 1988, John Mitchell fell on the sidewalk on N Street in Washington, and died shortly after of a massive heart attack. Writes Mr. Rosen: “Early editions of the Washington Post carried a paragraph in Lawrence Meyer’s obituary that read:
“ ‘He was the ultimate Nixon loyalist. Unlike some of his codefendants, Mitchell wrote no memoir, no kiss-and-tell insider report, no novelized version of his time in Washington. He lived according to his own code and to the end of his Watergate ordeal, he was a stand-up guy.’”
“Later editions,” writes Mr. Rosen, “omitted the heretical words of praise” and turned for comment to “Jeb Magruder, who sent Mitchell to prison with false testimony,” and Bob Woodward, “another tormentor who wrongly surmised ‘what few secrets of the Nixon administration that may still remain went with him.’”
“Wrongly surmised,” indeed. And one suspects that in the years ahead some of the more significant of Mr. Woodward’s “few secrets” will continue to be unearthed by openminded journalists and scholars. And in fact, James Rosen, who writes with the immediacy of a newsman, the touch of a novelist and the perspective of an historian, may be just the man for the job.
John Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.