Reviewing The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate

After spending 17 years plowing through thousands of previously unpublished and unexamined Watergate-related documents and tapes, Fox News Reporter James Rosen has written a terrific biography of one of the most powerful, yet least known players from the Nixon era, John Newton Mitchell.

Born in Detroit in 1913, John N. Mitchell grew up on Long Island, NY.  He played semi-pro hockey to pay his way through Fordham University and its law school.  He joined the municipal bond law firm of Caldwell and Raymond in 1938; by 1942 he was a partner.

In World War II, Mitchell served in the U.S. Navy and was discharged in November 1945 with the rank of lieutenant.  Contrary to popular myth, he was not Ensign John F. Kennedy’s commanding officer in the South Pacific.

After the war, Mitchell returned to Caldwell and in 1966 the firm merged and became known as Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander and Mitchell.

Mitchell was recognized as one of the most brilliant municipal bond attorneys.  One year after he passed the bar exam he helped draft the Federal Housing Act of 1939.  It was Mitchell, as counsel to New York’s Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who came up with the idea that permitted the governor to get around voter disapproval of his numerous bond schemes.  The concept:  the moral obligation bond.

When he took office in January 1959, Rockefeller had grandiose plans to rebuild housing in New York’s inner cities.  As a graduate of the Robert Moses school of issuing debt, he had the state legislature create the Housing Finance Agency — one of 230 authorities created during his 15 year tenure.  John Mitchell was called in for an opinion by Commissioner of Housing James Gaynor.  In Mitchell’s judgment, the “investment community was pretty sour on that type of obligation” and would demand a high rate of interest.  To change the negative perception, he added language to the authority’s indenture that included the “legislative intent” to supply money, in the event of revenue shortfalls, to meet principal and interest payments.  Since the state had no legal obligation to aid the authority, the concept became known as “moral obligation.”

In 1966 at the height of his legal career, Mitchell met the man who was to guarantee his place in U.S. history books — Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon, who moved to New York after his 1962 California gubernatorial defeat, was enamored by Mitchell — “this gray-flannel power broker to governors and mayors in all fifty states.”

As Nixon plotted his 1968 political comeback, he increasingly turned to Mitchell for counsel.

Criticized in 1960 for trying to be candidate and campaign manager at one at and the same time, Nixon decided he needed Mitchell, a strong, no nonsense can-do guy, to run his 1968 presidential campaign.

To many pols, the choice of Mitchell appeared odd.  When a group of congressmen bluntly asked Mitchell what business did a bond lawyer have running Nixon’s campaign?  Mitchell replied, “I’m the only man who can say ‘no’ to Richard Nixon.  I’ve made more money in the practice of law than Nixon, brought more clients into the firm, can hold my own in argument with him and, as far as I’m concerned, I can deal with him as an equal.”

In 1968, Mitchell successfully engineered a close first ballot victory at the Republican Convention and in the fall eked out a narrow victory with Nixon receiving 43% of the popular vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 42% and George Wallace’s 13%.

Mitchell did not want to go to Washington due to his wife Martha’s booze problem, but the relentless Nixon prevailed on him to become 67th Attorney General of the United States.

“Mitchell,” writes Rosen, “played an invaluable role in modernizing, strengthening and re-legitimizing American law enforcement.”  The Attorney General crafted twenty-seven pieces of anti-crime legislation that were enacted by Congress including RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act).

As for Civil Rights, he told activists “watch what we do instead of what we say.”  True to his word, Mitchell broke the back of school desegregation by September 1970.  African-American children in desegregated schools jumped from 186 thousand in 1969 to 3 million in 1970.

It was also Mitchell’s job to handle the extreme leftist anti-war protestors that invaded D.C.  He compared the 1969 May Day rioters to “another group of civilians who roamed the streets of Germany in the 1920s bullying people, shouting down those who disagreed with them and denying other people their civil rights.  They were called Hitler’s Brown Shirts.”

The Nixon White House staff, convinced they were under siege by subversives, devised various schemes to monitor their enemies and to enhance their re-election efforts.  During this period, it was the Attorney General who saved the president from self-destructing.  Mitchell blocked Nixon’s ill-advised order to drop the I.T.T. anti-trust appeal and he derailed the illegal White House “Houston Plan” which sought to end restraints on internal intelligence.

For his noble efforts, Mitchell earned the enmity of White House insiders H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman.  To get rid of him, they convinced Nixon that Mitchell was the only man who could run the 1972 Committee to re-elect the President (CREEP).

Mitchell’s post Justice Department career was a disaster.  His name was connected — often unjustly — with every conceivable scandal:  Watergate, Vesco, ITT, the milk lobby, the Kissinger wiretaps, the Ellsberg break-in, Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters cash and Howard Hughes and the Vegas casinos.

To save their political skins, Richard Nixon, John Dean and Jeb Magruder fingered Mitchell as the Watergate culprit.

Yet, after all the investigations, Mitchell was never formally charged with ordering the Watergate break-in.

The bulk of Rosen’s book is devoted to uncovering the true purpose of Watergate and who ordered it.  The evidence, Rosen confidently concludes, proves Mitchell was innocent.  In Rosen’s judgment, the president’s White House counselor, John Dean, went around Mitchell and leaned on CREEP deputy director Jeb Magruder to order the bugging of the Democratic National Committee offices.  According to Rosen, “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, who among the president’s men pressured Jeb Magruder to send Liddy and his team back into the DNC.”

“Call girl theory”?  Federal prosecutors told Dean that “employees at the DNC… were assisting in getting the Democrats connected with the prostitutes at the Columbia Plaza.”  And the reason why Dean may have had an interest in bugging the DNC is that his wife Maureen “had her own ties to Columbia Plaza [call girl ring].”

Shortly before he died in November 1988, Mitchell realized he had been set up.  “The more I got into this,” he said, “the more I see how these sons of bitches have not only done Nixon in but they’ve done me in.”

After Nixon’s fall in 1974, Mitchell was indicted on charges of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.  He was convicted of subornation of Jeb Magruder’s perjury before the Watergate grand jury in September 1972.  The other charges, Rosen persuasively argues, were based on the perjured testimony of others.

Throughout the whole ordeal Mitchell remained a Nixon loyalist.  He admitted before the Senate Watergate committee that he kept cover-up information from Nixon “so he could go on through the campaign without being involved.”  When criticized for this lack of action, he calmly replied, “In my mind, the re-election of Richard Nixon, compared to what was on the other side, was so important that I put it in exactly that context.”

Mitchell served his 19 months in federal prison like a man.  He never whined, never wrote a sensational memoir, never went on an anti-Nixon speaking tour.

The man who helped do him in, Richard Nixon, said it best in a toast he gave at a post-prison party:  “John Mitchell has friends – and he stands by them.”