In a new book, Fox News reporter James Rosen revisits the life and times of John Mitchell. Rosen recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez on The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What drew you to John Mitchell?
James Rosen: John N. Mitchell was the one major figure in the Nixon presidency and Watergate who never wrote a book and never had one written about him — which was just how he wanted it. A World War II Navy veteran and fabulously successful Wall Street lawyer with a fondness for pipes, Scotch, and golf, Mitchell ran both of Richard Nixon’s winning presidential campaigns, in 1968 and 1972, and then (reluctantly) agreed to serve, at Nixon’s urging, as attorney general of the United States.
Mitchell’s tenure as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, from January 1969 to March 1972, witnessed a uniquely chaotic and scary time in American history: the clash of law and order forces against antiwar demonstrators and radical subversive groups like the Weather Underground and Black Panthers; the killings at Kent State and the Mayday riots; and unprecedented controversies and crises including the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the discovery that the Joint Chiefs of Staff spied on president Nixon and Henry Kissinger for some 13 months in wartime. Mitchell also presided over the peaceful desegregation of the public schools in the south — one of the landmark achievements of the executive branch in the 20th century. And with his primacy over the selection of Nixon’s judicial nominees, including the four justices Nixon placed on the Supreme Court, Mitchell effectively reshaped that institution for decades.
However, by virtue of his involvement in the Watergate cover-up, the former attorney general became the highest-ranking U.S. government official ever to serve a prison sentence. When he left federal prison in January 1979, after nineteen months and one denial of parole, he quipped to the assembled news media: “Henceforth, don’t call me; I’ll call you.” Yet no biographer ever did. Ironically, there were three books written about Mitchell’s mischievous and unstable second wife, Martha, who became one of the most famous women in America thanks to her inebriated late-night telephone calls to reporters. So it struck me, around the time I was graduating from college, that there should be a book about John Mitchell, who was such an important figure in recent American history.
Lopez: How strong a man could he have been? He wound up in jail after all.
Rosen: This is akin to asking how good a boxer Muhammad Ali was, since he wound up with Parkinson’s, after all. Mitchell’s incarceration in some ways reflected his strength. Unlike his fellow Watergate convicts, Mitchell never traded evidence, real or fabricated, against a more senior official — which, in Mitchell’s case, would have meant President Nixon — in exchange for a more lenient sentence; instead, Mitchell secretly proffered to the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (WSPF) to accept a guilty plea if the prosecutors would cease their pursuit of Nixon, a gallant gesture replicated nowhere else in the scandal and flatly refused by the prosecutors.
As I like to say, the scandal presented in The Strong Man is not your father’s Watergate. And the reason for this is because no previous study of the subject has benefited from the exhaustive review of evidence, old and new, undertaken for my book. In addition to mastering the voluminous secondary literature on the subject — the roughly 500 books published on Nixon, Watergate, and the convulsions of the Sixties, and the daily-deadline reporting by my predecessors in the Washington press corps — I conducted 250 original interviews and aggressively used the Freedom of Information Act, over several years’ time, to secure access to literally hundreds of thousands of previously unpublished documents and tapes.
These included whole archives of official Watergate evidence that no researcher had ever before seen. Among these untouched collections were the internal staff memoranda of the WSPF, which showed what the special prosecutors knew about Watergate, and when they knew it, particularly about the deeply flawed testimony of John Dean and Jeb Magruder, the chief accusers of Nixon and Mitchell; and more than 5,000 pages of sworn testimony taken by the Senate Watergate committee in executive session, which included previously unpublished interrogations of key witnesses like Dean, Magruder, Watergate burglar James McCord, and others.
The most fascinating revelation of these documents was the way the Democratic counsel to the Senate Watergate committee, Sam Dash, and the liberal staff lawyers on the WSPF, including Richard Ben-Veniste, worked aggressively to reshape their star witnesses’ testimony in order to shore up what was otherwise a fairly weak case against John Mitchell. Indeed, of the ten “overt acts” in the Watergate cover-up ascribed to the former attorney general in the indictment issued in U.S. Mitchell, I conclude he actually only committed one, and even then, Mitchell’s act of deceit was designed, paradoxically, to conceal his own honorable conduct in the events in question.
My book thus presents some starkly different conclusions about the central mysteries of the Nixon era — namely, what was the true purpose of the Watergate break-in and wiretapping operation? who ordered it? and what role did CIA play in the affair? — than those reached by the major (and Democratic-controlled) investigative bodies. As such, The Strong Man constitutes a frontal assault on the Woodward-Bernstein version of events, which may account for why the Washington Post ran a brief, snide, and non-substantive review of the book and the New York Times refuses to review it at all.
Lopez: Can you really argue that a former attorney general who winds up in jail isn’t a bit of a disgrace?
Rosen: This question prompts two in return: Where, exactly, did I so argue? And a disgrace to whom? If a criminal defendant is systematically denied access to evidence exculpatory to him, and is forced, by the very officers charged with faithfully executing the law, to respond to damning testimony by men bearing false witness against him, to whom should disgrace accrue?
What I did argue was that Mitchell, while flawed, was an honorable man, undone by unswerving loyalty to his “client,” the president — a loyalty maintained even after the Watergate tapes showed Nixon cynically betraying Mitchell in the spring of 1973, time and again, as the cover-up collapsed. As even John Dean, whose testimony sent Mitchell to prison, has observed, Mitchell was a restraining influence on Nixon and the men around him. The Strong Man concludes that Mitchell stood not at the center of, but fundamentally apart from, the criminality of the Nixon administration.
Lopez: How and when did he “intervene on behalf of the republic”?
Rosen: As ex-President Nixon and former CIA Director Richard Helms attested in later years, it was the opposition of Attorney General Mitchell that persuaded Nixon to rescind his approval, in July 1970, of the Huston Plan, a wide ranging and admittedly illegal program for domestic espionage against radical groups and their suspected supporters. Mitchell can also be heard, on the tapes of April 1971, persuading Nixon to rescind his angry order that the Justice Department drop its massive anti-trust lawsuits against the ITT conglomerate. And it was Mitchell again, in December 1971, who gently but firmly dissuaded Nixon from prosecuting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer, for espionage, after Nixon learned of the chiefs’ treachery against him and Kissinger. This was an unprecedented constitutional crisis, at the heart of which Nixon saw “a federal offense of the highest order” and which Mitchell, in his talks with the president, likened to the chiefs “robbing your desk.” While the prosecution of Moorer may have been justified, Mitchell wisely foresaw such proceedings doing grave damage to the armed services and the nation, and convinced Nixon of same.
Lopez: Isn’t doing a sympathetic portrait of a Watergate figure a thankless task? How has it been received thus far?
Rosen: Well, the task has yielded the intrinsic rewards of a rich investigative project — I got to interview presidents, secretaries of state and defense, Supreme Court justices, CIA directors, the Democratic National Committee secretary who was wiretapped in the Watergate operation, Ida “Maxie” Wells, and the wiretap monitor who was eavesdropping on her, Alfred C. Baldwin III. And I loved writing the book, usually on campaign buses and Air Force One rides, drowning out the sophomoric kibbitzing of David Gregory with noise-canceling headphones that throbbed with endless repetitions of sinister Philip Glass masterpieces like Koyaanisqatsi and The Fog of War.
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.”