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Mr. Law and Order
A biographer aims to restore the reputation of Nixon's attorney general.

Reviewed by Lincoln Caplan
Sunday, June 1, 2008

THE STRONG MAN

John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate

By James Rosen

Doubleday. 609 pp. $35

John Mitchell was Richard Nixon's attorney general from 1969 to 1972 and campaign manager in both of Nixon's elections to the presidency. He was also the first chief law-enforcement officer of the United States to be imprisoned for breaking the law. Found guilty of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice for his part in the Watergate break-in and cover-up as head of CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President, he was sentenced to up to eight years behind bars. For medical reasons, he was let out after 19 months.

Mitchell was known for outbursts of crude language that seemed at odds with his wingtips and pipe but reflected his self-image as a tough guy who had risen far. After going to the night program at Fordham Law School, he had become a partner in a striving, second-tier New York City law firm, with a lucrative practice related to housing-finance bonds. When his firm merged with Nixon's in 1966, his life took a fateful turn. William Safire, the retired New York Times columnist then in the Nixon camp as a public relations man, observed, "John Mitchell was the rock upon which Nixon built his church."

To the future president, his new law partner was a "heavyweight," mature and self-possessed. Mitchell sneered that "Nixon couldn't piss straight in the shower if I wasn't there to hold him," according to a former Justice Department aide. But he took the job as attorney general because the president-elect asked him to, directly, and because he had a hefty ego. He became known as "Mr. Law and Order," leading Nixon's war on crime and the campaign against student activists.

In contrast to other offenders in what Mitchell called "the White House horrors," including John Dean, John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman, G. Gordon Liddy, Jeb Stuart Magruder and Nixon himself, Mitchell didn't publish a memoir telling his side of the story before he died 20 years ago at the age of 75. He remained, as Nixon dubbed him, "great stone face." He frustrated politicians and prosecutors by choosing not to divulge the president's part in his administration's misdeeds -- even after Mitchell learned about the secret White House taping system that Nixon had used to record their conversations.

The Strong Man, by James Rosen, a Fox News Washington correspondent and a contributing editor to Playboy, displays wide-ranging and obsessive reporting, especially about the Watergate story. The book seeks to accomplish what a Mitchell memoir could not. It may seem strange to say that Rosen aims to vindicate the lawman-turned-convict, since the author affirms Mitchell's guilt and even details crimes "he got away with," but Rosen's purpose is wholesale revision: He presses the thesis that Mitchell should be recognized as a distinguished, if tragic, American figure.

To the author, Mitchell was a victim repeatedly wronged -- by a petty cabal of men in the White House who schemed to make him the fall guy for Watergate; by a conspiracy among the press, politicians and prosecutors, for whom Rosen reserves his harshest words because, in his view, they shared a baseless ardor to put Mitchell away; and, most of all, by the two people at the center of his life, the grandiose, self-pitying Nixon and Mitchell's unhinged, headline-grabbing second wife, Martha. Rosen doesn't really explain her hold on Mitchell, but he recounts how she used her weird celebrity to intrude repeatedly on matters of state.

Billed as a biography, The Strong Man reads more like a polemic. Rosen elevates Mitchell's standing at the bar (his bond practice, this book unpersuasively insists, put him "among the nation's most elite lawyers"). The author exaggerates the good that Mitchell did as attorney general ("to ensure racial progress he did more than any executive branch official of the twentieth century," Rosen claims -- overlooking, among others, Burke Marshall, the Kennedy-Johnson civil rights chief who led the effort to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act). Rosen does this to boost the credibility of his restoration project, but his hype accomplishes the opposite.

About Watergate, however, Rosen tells a relentless, intricate, sometimes engrossing tale. John Dean comes across as a duplicitous manipulator, Jeb Magruder as a spineless liar, Gordon Liddy as a maniacal soldier of misfortune. It was their Gemstone plan for intelligence operations against the Democrats in 1972, Rosen relates, that led to the Watergate break-in for which Mitchell was held responsible. Three times, in Rosen's narrative, they wouldn't take "no" for an answer when they vainly sought the approval of "the strong man."

Mitchell's most famous utterance was about The Washington Post's late, great publisher. When he was called by Carl Bernstein in September 1972 for comment the night before the newspaper ran a story alleging that he controlled an illegal slush fund used to spy on Nixon's political opponents, Mitchell snapped: "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big, fat wringer if that's published. Good Christ! That's the most sickening thing I ever heard."

In the annals of Watergate, the slush-fund story was the beginning of the end. In a 2005 Vanity Fair article, Bernstein recalled that when he learned that Mitchell was one of the keepers of the secret fund used to pay the Watergate burglars, he turned to Bob Woodward and said: "Oh my God, this president is going to be impeached." In her memoir, Personal History, Katharine Graham said she was "shocked" that the attorney general's response was "so personal and offensive." But Rosen contends that Mitchell's distress was genuine and justified because the Post story was "dead wrong." Mitchell "never knew about, let alone 'controlled,' any secret fund used to finance 'intelligence operations' against the Democrats," he writes.

Perhaps Rosen has his own definitions of "control," "secret" and "intelligence operations." Otherwise, his revisionism, at this point, has crossed over to an alternate universe. A month after the Post story, Mitchell's successor as head of CREEP, Clark MacGregor, admitted there was a cash fund from which five men, including Mitchell, were authorized to get money. In his acclaimed book Nightmare, J. Anthony Lukas reported that Mitchell approved the use of $250,000 for gathering "intelligence" on the Democratic Party. Rosen acknowledges that most historians share Lukas's line. He takes another.

Watergate junkies will have to see whether Rosen's book changes their views about who did what. But to my mind, Mitchell's failure to put a halt to Gemstone with the blunt, unequivocal language for which he was known leaves him seeming ineffective, not strong. His crucial part in the illegal cover-up -- played, Rosen says, because he believed that a lawyer shouldn't rat on a client and that nothing should be allowed to jeopardize Nixon's reelection -- marks him as badly misguided and weak. ยท

Lincoln Caplan, the author of "The Tenth Justice: The Solicitor General and the Rule of Law" and other books, is managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners.

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