If you are younger than age 50, Watergate is just something from the history book. The name John Mitchell will not likely resonate either but he was the Attorney General of the United States under Richard Nixon. Remember Nixon? He was the first President to visit China and the first to resign from office. Mitchell also resigned from his position as Attorney General, but he did so to head up Nixon’s re-election campaign, the infamous CREEP or the Committee to Re-Elect the President. CREEP is a better name for the organization that would help bring down Nixon and send many of his associates to federal prison. Watergate became the event, or became the umbrella, for many felonious acts associated with either the Presidency or re-election efforts of Richard Nixon. For you young folks, Watergate was a black mark on our country’s history but is sure helped the book industry as all the major and minor characters got book deals.
John Mitchell went to jail for several Watergate-related crimes during his time as Attorney General. Unlike his Nixon administration colleagues, he neither cooperated with authorities to get a reduced sentence nor used the notoriety to write a book or otherwise cash-in on his misdeeds. He did sign a contract to write a book but failed to deliver on the dirt that the publisher sought, and had to return the advance money.
Let me state this upfront, I am not a fan of John Mitchell but he is an interesting character in the story of Watergate and Richard Nixon. A recent book by James Rosen entitled: The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, details Mitchell’s three years as A.G., his role as chairman of CREP, the Watergate investigation and the last years in Mitchell’s life.
John Mitchell represented most things that I despised, so it might be unusual for me to write about him, but the deeper I dug into his story, the more compelling I found it. More than forty years later, Watergate still intrigues me. I was a teenager during Watergate and I was quite disillusioned by misuse of power and position, and the rampant corruption that surrounded Richard Nixon. The Richard Nixon team included very educated and successful professionals, many were lawyers, who blatantly ignored the law with an attitude that any act to reelect or support the president was justifiable. Neither the U.S. Constitution nor the United States Criminal Code seemed to matter to these folks. Watergate maybe didn’t start the distrust of government and politicians, but it greatly expanded it.
Mitchell presided over the Justice Department at the time when Nixon’s “law and order” platform was reshaping the use of police powers, use of wiretaps without judicial order, preventive detention without a warrant, and refusal to comply with court orders for school desegregation. When the National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State, Mitchell was asked and refused to investigate the shootings. Also on his watch, the Justice Department became the focus of large-scale demonstrations and protests that resulted in the largest number of arrests of citizens in District of Columbia history. Nixon, as quoted on his own taping system, frequently directed Mitchell to go after those “sons of bitches” war dissenter and civil rights protesters. The was the America of Archie Bunker and the phrase, “America, love it or leave it.”
Before reading Rosen’s book I would be the last person who would rise to the defense of John Mitchell. To me, he was no better than Liddy, Colson, Erlichman, Haldeman or the other convicted criminals on Nixon’s staff that spent time in prison. Yet, in the nearly 500 pages of Rosen’s book, one begins to earn a little respect for Mitchell, and see a man, who while not blameless in the Watergate matter, and was blind in his support of Nixon, was a man of conviction and dignity. Mitchell was known to resist pressure from Nixon to politicize the Justice Department and tried to shut down the lunacy of G. Gordon Liddy and other members of the White House Plumbers.
Liddy came up with a series of proposals aimed against Democrats including plans to kidnap members of the Democratic Party and to murder others. These Liddy proposals included breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex. Mitchell’s awareness of the plan, even though he rejected Liddy’s plan, was instrumental in the charges that led to Michell’s conviction of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury related to the Watergate break-in and cover-up. Even while Mitchell continued to support Nixon, the White House staff, and eventually Nixon himself, threw Mitchell under the bus and manufacture evidence against him, pointing the approval for the Watergate break-in directly at Mitchell. Not only was Mitchell thrown under the bus, Erlichman, Haldeman, Magruder and Dean all took turns driving the bus repeatedly over him.
Mitchell was a big boy, playing in the big leagues, so it is difficult to feel sorry for him, particularly considering his blind allegiance to Nixon, and for not upholding the law he swore to protect. Mitchell’s relationship with Nixon deteriorated during his three years as A.G. This enabled Erlichman, Haldeman and others to ensnare Mitchell in an influence peddling charge of helping Robert Vesco with an SEC criminal investigation. Although Mitchell beat the Vesco charges, his reputation was damaged, his financial assets drained, and his vulnerability identified.
One might even have sympathy for Mitchell whose wife Martha often made drunken telephone calls to newspapers complaining about how mistreated her husband was by the media and even the Nixon White House.
John Mitchell served the longest prison term of those convicted of Watergate related crimes. After prison, Mitchell was broke, in declining health, and engaged in some questionable dealings for HUD business. Strangely, Nixon was reported to have telephones Mitchell several times each while he was in prison. Despite being quick to toss Mitchell to the Watergate lions, Nixon always considered Mitchell a true friend, something Nixon had few of.
Nixon and Mitchell were law partners in the 1960s. Prior to becoming Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney General, Mitchell was a very successful Wall Street attorney who had no real interest in Washington politics. When Nixon won the Presidency it is reported that Nixon asked Mitchell 26 times to become Attorney General before Mitchell begrudgingly accepted. He should have kept refusing because Nixon and Washington ruined John Mitchell’s life. When you swim with the sharks you might become dinner.