A Fox News political correspondent examines the life and legal travails of Nixon’s attorney general, the highest-ranking cabinet member ever to be convicted of criminal charges and imprisoned.
Thirty-five years ago, ITT lobbyist Dita Beard, fugitive financier Robert Vesco and E. Howard Hunt and the White House “plumbers” were infamous for the possibility that their wrongdoing, loosely grouped under the Watergate heading, reached into the highest levels of the Nixon administration. The president’s men proved only too willing to deflect any lawbreaking onto the darkly brooding, former attorney general, John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s ostensible friend, law partner and campaign manager. By doing so, they hoped to satisfy the press and prosecutors with the sacrifice of, in Nixon’s Domestic Policy Advisor John Erlichman’s memorable phrase, “The Big Enchilada.” If the supporting cast of wrongdoers has receded into history, so too has Mitchell. He’s remembered today for his stewardship at the Justice Department, where his law-and-order crackdown essentially destroyed the New Left, and for his marriage to the alcoholic, severely disturbed Martha Mitchell, whose late-night phone calls to Washington reporters defending her husband and assailing Nixon allowed the press to cast her as a “truth-teller,” a heroine of the sordid Watergate affair. As for Mitchell himself, Rosen never quite persuades us that he was, in fact, a warm, witty, genial man, forced to play the role of tough cop and archconservative, a public image demanded by Nixon, responding to the turbulent times. Instead, Rosen’s Mitchell possesses all the charm and charisma normally associated with a municipal-bond lawyer, albeit a tremendously successful one. More convincingly, 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. He instigated little—White House Counsel John Dean is this story’s villain—short-circuited many of the wilder schemes hatched around Nixon and ended up jailed for perjury and obstruction of justice, all in a misguided attempt to protect the presidency. Maybe Mitchell never “controlled” a secret fund dedicated to spying on the Democrats, but his deliciously vulgar reply to reporter Carl Bernstein’s late-night phone call levying the charge underscores the era’s low tenor. Referring to the Washington Post publisher, Mitchell responded, “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big, fat wringer if that’s published.”
As sympathetic and well-argued a defense as Mitchell could have hoped for.