In terms of external rewards, however, “thankless” wouldn’t be too far off the mark. I should have expected that a realistic rendering of John Mitchell would leave me essentially friendless. The liberals are willing to revisit Nixon and Mitchell only if it serves the Left’s old narrative of them as architects of repression, or, as Weather Underground founder Mark Rudd put it in our 2004 interview, “a Wall Street Nazi” and “a Whittier Nazi.” In this view, not limited to radicals but shared widely on the left, the Nixon administration marked a dangerous brush with homegrown fascism, with John Mitchell — dubbed “Mr. Law and Order” on the cover of Newsweek in September 1969 — as its pipe-smoking, stony-faced emblem. “Liberty under the law is under the most severe attack in America since Joe McCarthy’s hey-day,” fretted the New York Times’s Tom Wicker, a few months after Woodstock.
Today’s conservatives, conversely, are equally loathe to reconsider Nixon and Mitchell, because — in an act of historical air-brushing practiced with Stalinist zeal — the right pretends there was a straight and unbroken line, an unmerciful desert, between the Goldwater and Reagan eras, with no advocacy of core conservative values in the intervening years by any major GOP politician or official. Because Nixon and Mitchell wound up disgraced, and because they occasionally acquiesced to the prevailing and adverse circumstances under which they were forced to govern (opposition control of both houses of Congress, a hostile news media, and next to no right-of-center intellectual establishment), today’s conservatives have effectively turned their backs on those who stood for the Right Reason values of “law and order” against those of amnesty, acid, and abortion, and when it was least fashionable to do so: in the age of Radical Chic. I once cornered Grover Norquist in the Fox News green room and asked him if he thought Nixon and Mitchell — and Spiro Agnew, the first national figure to decry liberal bias in the news media — didn’t deserve a bit more credit than they have generally received for their roles in the building of a conservative movement in postwar America. “As far as I’m concerned,” Norquist sneered, returning to his newspaper, “Nixon and Mitchell were on the other side.”
This view, which treats the landslide of 1972 as somehow a victory for the forces of McGovern, strikes me as frightfully short sighted. After all, John Mitchell was the most visible federal official in the early 1970s to look beyond the hostility to police then in vogue and see that, with proper training and equipment, cops could turn the tide against crime — and serve with honor. Picking the right battles on Capitol Hill; backing career prosecutors; donning the tough-guy mask to preach law and order in an era of revolution: These were Mitchell’s weapons. And yet, on the long and winding path to his prison cell, Mitchell many times found himself seated in rooms where his own signature hung on the wall, conferring power on the very men welcoming him into federal custody.
And so the reception of The Strong Man has played out along roughly the same ideological battle lines that existed in Mitchell’s time. Virtually all reviewers have praised my research effort, reflected in the book’s 83 pages of source notes; even the Washington Post, so invested in prevailing Watergate mythology, begrudgingly acknowledged my “wide-ranging and obsessive reporting,” presumably a compliment. And even some not entirely friendly reviewers have conceded that I proved my case on the issue of Mitchell’s involvement, or relative lack of it, in Watergate. Robert Novak, who hated John Mitchell and reviewed The Strong Man for The Weekly Standard, complimented my “unfailingly honest reportage” and “engrossing” writing — and even found “Rosen makes a convincing case that perjured testimony, especially from White House aides John Dean and Jeb Magruder, formed the basis of the case [against Mitchell]” — but nevertheless complained, in essence, that I went too easy on the man. The Wall Street Journal made wry note of my “Ahab-like” devotion to subject, demonstrated over 17 years of labors, and congratulated me for producing a “thoroughly documented but vibrant portrait” of Mitchell.
Writing in The National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn called the book “superb,” crediting me with “arguing persuasively that Attorney General John Mitchell was essentially ambivalent about, if not opposed to, the machinations of Nixon’s subordinates.” The Boston Globe welcomed “a surprisingly fresh look at the scandal” and agreed: “Rosen makes a compelling case that Mitchell was more sinned against than sinning in Watergate.” Likewise, Kirkus Reviews called the Watergate sections “convincing” and “well-argued,” adding: “Rosen takes us through the tangled, manifold legal charges Mitchell weathered, demonstrating that the attorney general, while not wholly innocent, stood only on the periphery of the Nixon administration’s criminality.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch called the book “fascinating…probative and well-researched…provocative and savvy,” and concluded: “Rosen makes a persuasive case that although certainly not guiltless, Mitchell was less responsible for the many scandals lumped into Watergate than were others, notably Nixon counsel John Dean.”
Library Journal hailed The Strong Man as a “fine political biography,” while Publishers Weekly called it “meticulous, exhaustively researched.” Politico.com also called the book “meticulous,” and the Denver Post said: “Rosen’s book is admirable for the breadth and depth of his research.” The New Yorker included the book in its “Briefly Noted” section, and declared the material “fascinating.” John R. Coyne Jr., no stranger in these precincts, was most generous in the Washington Times: “James Rosen writes with the immediacy of a newsman, the touch of a novelist and the perspective of an historian.”
But the kindest words of all (and therefore, of course, the truest), came from William Safire, the Nixon administration veteran and longtime New York Times columnist. In his weekly “On Language” column in the June 22 edition of New York Times Magazine, Safire called The Strong Man “the most revealing and insightful book I’ve read about that era,” adding: “Profoundly researched for 20 years by a reporter scrupulous about source notes, it is both a sympathetic and an unsparing character study of a complex historic figure previously portrayed as the caricature of a villain. I knew the dour Mitchell almost ‘in full’ and can attest to this being a Pulitzer-quality biography.”
Lopez: At his funeral, friend Dick Moore said “what [Mitchell] went through was the most unfair, cruel treatment of a public figure in the life of this cynical city.” Was it that bad?
Rosen: Yes. By the time Watergate was in full swing, Mitchell was one of the most vilified Americans of the twentieth century. Every newspaper, magazine, and broadcast outlet in America showcased a daily thrashing of his once-good name, and there was, it seemed, no scandal of the era, the “decade of shocks” from 1963 to 1974, in which Mitchell’s name did not figure: Watergate! Vesco! ITT! The milk lobby! The Kissinger wiretaps! The Ellsberg break-in! Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters cash! Howard Hughes and the Vegas casinos! FBI black bag jobs! CIA assassination plots! At his arraignment on federal charges, Mitchell was greeted by protesters shouting “Sig heil!” and “Rot in hell!” A neighbor in his building boasted of allowing a door to slam in his face. “It was just my way of saying, ‘Screw you, John Mitchell,’” the neighbor explained. Pete Hamill, that great humanist, expressed outrage in the New York Daily News that Mitchell was afforded medical furloughs from prison, lamenting that the former attorney general “would not soon find himself sweating in a prison laundry, or stamping out license plates, or breaking brick in a quarry. He would not be humiliated by sadistic prison guards who enforce their power with body searches. He would not be gang raped. He would not have homemade knives pulled on him in the yard….Somebody should go over and get him and bring him back to the slammer, where he belongs.” Objections were raised to the hanging of Mitchell’s official portrait in the Department of Justice building in 1985. And the day after Mitchell’s death, in November 1988, the editors of the Washington Post struck reporter Lawrence Meyer’s unattributed statement that the former attorney general was “a stand-up guy” from all evening editions.
Lopez: If you could ask Mitchell one question what would it be?
Rosen: What did you think of the book? Or, more seriously: Did Nixon ever apologize for all the awful things he said about you on the Watergate tapes?
Lopez: What would you like future historians to take most seriously about your book?
Rosen: My photograph.
Lopez: How does a Fox News reporter wind up a “friend” of Dan Rather — who blurbed your book?
Rosen: The same way Bill Buckley wound up a “friend” of John Kenneth Galbraith. In my case, I used to work for Rather — paid by him, not by CBS News — as a researcher, compiling data on subjects of interest to him outside of his daily duties as anchor and managing editor of The CBS Evening News. It was through Dan’s generosity — legendary to those who know him — that I was able to review the transcripts of every CBS News program that aired between 1972 and 1975, an invaluable resource. The Strong Man is thus one of the first books to make systematic use of the broadcast journalism of the Nixon era.
Lopez: What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Nixon while working on the book?
Rosen: That the president actually said, in a tape-recorded meeting on April 19, 1973, the very first words that appear in my book: “John Mitchell I love.”