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John N. Mitchell, Principal in Watergate, Dies at 75

By Lawrence Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 1988; Page A01

John N. Mitchell, the only United States attorney general to serve a prison sentence, died here yesterday after suffering a heart attack. He was 75.

Mitchell, a friend, confidant and law partner of Richard M. Nixon, became a familiar face on television screens across America in the summer of 1973 as he sparred with members and staff of the Senate Watergate Committee probing his role -- and Nixon's -- in the Watergate scandal.

But the dour, pipe-smoking Mitchell, who dead-panned his way through three days of testimony on television, gave away very little. Other former White House aides and Nixon administration officials decided to avoid the ordeal of a trial after indictment and plea-bargained with the Watergate special prosecutor. Mitchell, however, was indicted, stood trial and was convicted along with three other defendants in the Watergate cover-up trial.

Eventually, he served 19 months in a federal penal institution before being released for medical reasons. After his release, he lived quietly in Georgetown, working as a consultant, occasionally being seen in restaurants, granting no interviews.

He was the ultimate Nixon loyalist. Unlike some of his codefendants, Mitchell wrote no memoir, no kiss-and-tell insider report, no novelized version of his time in Washington. He lived according to his own code to the end of his Watergate ordeal.

Nevertheless, it was a shattering fall for a man who had once been at the top of his profession as a senior partner in a prestigious New York law firm where he made a handsome living as an influential bond lawyer.

After losing the 1962 gubernatorial race in California, Nixon moved to New York and joined Mitchell's law firm, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander and Mitchell. Mitchell quickly became a key adviser for Nixon and managed his successful presidential campaign in 1968. In a period of civil protest and turmoil growing out of the civil rights movement and dissent from the Vietnam War, Mitchell was credited with fashioning the tough law-and-order posture that swayed millions of voters to support Nixon.

It came as no surprise when Mitchell was named attorney general, and in his public pronouncements he sounded like America's top cop. Nor did he shrink from unadorned criticism of antiwar demonstrators. Before a demonstration in Washington in 1969, Mitchell described its organizers as "active militants who want to destroy some of the processes and some of the institutions of our government."

In those days, Mitchell had a fearsome reputation as a gruff, tough, no-nonsense law enforcement man with a direct line to the Oval Office. He appeared unflappable and did not raise his voice in public, but his stern manner spoke of self-assured authority. A Washington Post profile of Mitchell in 1970 by Don Oberdorfer said, "People have noticed that when Richard M. Nixon utters a declarative sentence, he often turns toward John N. Mitchell as if searching for approval or reassurance. He is without question the most powerful man in the Cabinet."

Mitchell became something of a lightning rod, along with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, for critics of the Nixon administration. And his wife Martha became notorious for her outspoken public comments on all manner of subjects but directed especially at those who criticized her husband.

In early 1972 Mitchell resigned as attorney general to become director of the Committee to Re-elect the President.

It was the 1972 Nixon reelection campaign that led to Mitchell's disgrace, and the ultimate toppling, in August 1974, of the Nixon administration. Even before assuming formal control of the Nixon campaign, according to testimony in the Watergate hearings, Mitchell had serenely listened in his Justice Department office to a proposal by G. Gordon Liddy to use prostitutes and electronic listening devices to get information from Democratic officials.

Although Mitchell, according to testimony, turned down that proposal, he eventually approved giving Liddy and his coconspirators $250,000 for another project: the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington.

In his own testimony before the Senate Watergate committee, Mitchell characterized the testimony of his principal accuser, his former reelection committee aide Jeb Stuart Magruder, as a "palpable, damnable lie."

But Mitchell admitted under oath that in 1972 he knew about the subsequent Watergate cover-up -- the high level administration effort to thwart the investigation of the break-in -- and said nothing about it to then-President Nixon, "so he could go on through the campaign without being involved."

When chastised for placing the "expediency" of Nixon's election above his own responsibility to inform the president about what was happening, Mitchell responded, "In my mind, the reelection of Richard Nixon, compared to what was on the other side, was so important that I put it in exactly that context."

But Mitchell was not around even to savor Nixon's landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern in November 1972. He resigned as Nixon's campaign manager on July 1, 1972, saying that he had been spending too much time away from his wife and daughter. Martha Mitchell, for her part, had been calling reporters to tell them she would leave him if he didn't quit politics. In some calls, she hinted darkly that she had a story to tell -- some day.

The insider speculation in Washington was that Mitchell had quit because he was somehow linked to the Watergate break-in, which threatened throughout the fall of 1972 to mushroom into a full-fledged scandal despite the Nixon administration's effort to pass it off as a "third-rate burglary attempt."

Mitchell's public downfall began in September 1972 when The Washington Post quoted sources involved in the Watergate investigation as saying that Mitchell, while attorney general, had "personally controlled a secret Republican fund used to gather information about the Democrats."

When Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein reached Mitchell by phone at his New York apartment to get a response to the allegation, Mitchell listened to the story for a moment and said, "All that crap, you're putting it in the paper? It's all been denied. {Washington Post Publisher} Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's ever published. Good Christ! That's the most sickening thing I ever heard." Moments later, Mitchell hung up.

By the spring of 1973, the stone wall adopted by Nixon and his men was beginning to crumble. A variety of congressional and federal investigations were under way. Mitchell's name was mentioned in a deposition concerning Robert L. Vesco, an international financier who was a fugitive from a federal indictment. Mitchell and Nixon Finance Committee Chairman Maurice H. Stans were indicted in May 1973 on federal charges of obstructing an investigation of Vesco after he made a $200,000 contribution to the Nixon campaign. In April 1974 both men were acquitted in a New York federal court.

But Mitchell was still deeply mired in Watergate. A month before his acquittal in New York, he and six other Nixon administration officials -- once among the most powerful men in Washington -- had been indicted by a District of Columbia federal grand jury on charges of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice.

By the time the trial got under way in the fall of 1974, Nixon's presidency had ended in disgrace. Nixon had resigned in August and gone back to his seaside home in San Clemente, Calif. The cover-up trial of Mitchell and four codefendants -- one had pleaded guilty and one had been granted a separate trial -- took up most of the fall. The verdict was returned on New Year's Day, 1975. After 15 hours of deliberation the jury found former White House chief of staff H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, former White House chief domestic adviser John D. Ehrlichman, former assistant attorney general Robert C. Mardian and Mitchell guilty. The only defendant acquitted was Kenneth W. Parkinson, a Washington lawyer who had been hired by the reelection committee to represent it after the Watergate break-in.

Mitchell's death prompted a broad array of reaction.

"I'm saddened. I went through the 1968 campaign with him and was his deputy attorney general for four years, and regarded him as a close friend," said Richard Kleindienst, who succeeded him as attorney general.

"He was universally admired and respected by the career lawyers in the Department of Justice. I am convinced in my own mind that he did not know anything about the break-in.

"He never complained when he came out. I don't excuse his conduct {in the cover-up}, but those of us who knew him well continued to respect him and have very warm feelings for him."

Mitchell, who had lived in a brick row house at 1300 30th St. NW since his release from Maxwell prison, remained cheerful in his final years, Kleindienst said. "He was a happy man, very active and very busy . . . . He had a legion of friends," and traveled frequently, visiting friends around the country.

"He was very happy, notwithstanding all the difficulties of his life."

William G. Hundley, one of Mitchell's lawyers, said, "John never really wanted to come to Washington, never really wanted be attorney general or head Nixon's {1968 presidential} campaign. He was content to be a successful bond lawyer in New York . . . . But he obviously had great loyalty, admiration and respect for Nixon. I'm not sure it was always returned, but . . . I never knew from him how he felt."

Magruder, a Nixon re-election committee official who served eight months in prison in connection with Watergate crimes, recalled Mitchell last night as "a mentor, almost like a father."

"He was a wonderful man to work for, very warm, easy to be with," said Magruder, who is now a minister at the First Community Church in Columbus, Ohio. "He was much different than the image the public and press had of him."

"When you work in the White House, the hours are long, and you're just expected to perform, no matter what," said Magruder in an interview last night. "But with John, it was different. One of my children was once injured in a football game, and when he heard about it he said, 'Just take off, go home, take care of your son."

Magruder said that, although he has talked to Mitchell in recent years, his relationship with him ended after he became a witness for the prosecution.

"Mitchell was the true Nixon loyalist, and never broke ranks with his president," said Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, whose reporting with Carl Bernstein helped uncover the Watergate scandal. "Accordingly, what few secrets of the Nixon administration that may still remain went with him."

Former President Nixon could not be reached for comment.

Despite Mitchell's tough public image, people who knew him privately described him as a crack golfer and charming in social settings. He could also be gracious in his most adverse moments. When the Watergate cover-up jury convicted him and three of his codefendants -- but acquitted Parkinson -- pandemonium broke out in the court room. One defendant all but collapsed on the defense table. Wives and children were in tears. Mitchell, stoic throughout, leaned around someone standing between himself and Parkinson and extended his right hand. "Congratulations," he said quietly to Parkinson, shaking his hand.

Hundley said last night that Mitchell had been "a very easy client. I don't think he had any illusions about what was going to happen to him." When Mitchell's life collapsed, Hundley said, "He took it like a man . . . . He would have been a great guy to sail down the river with."

For his part in the cover-up conspiracy and his failure to tell the truth about it under oath, Mitchell was sentenced to 2 1/2 to 8 years. U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica later reduced Mitchell's sentence to one to four years. Mitchell served 19 months at the minimum-security institution at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and was freed on parole Jan. 20, 1979.

Mitchell was paroled from Maxwell, among other reasons, because his health was failing. On the day he was freed, he told reporters gathered to greet him, "From henceforth, don't call me. I'll call you."

He never called.


© Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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