Dour, stern — and framed: John Mitchell and Water­gate

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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