Christopher's Reviews > The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate

The Strong Man by James Rosen
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's review
May 19, 2008

it was amazing
Read in June, 2008

Sometimes you have to wait a lifetime to find out what a person is truly like. James Rosen's splendid book on Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell is a testament to that. One hundred pages of footnotes (including over 250 interviews he personally conducted) in a 609 page book denote the vast and varied sources that Rosen, who started his research as a prodigious 21 year old fresh out of Johns Hopkins University, painstakingly assembled. The result is nothing less than extraordinary.

Along the way, we see a lot of the "usual suspects" - President Nixon acting in his typical neurotic fashion; a fauning and sycophantic Henry Kissinger, and the hard-nosed Nixon gatekeepers John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman. In cases like the Kent State shootings, the "Pentagon Papers" affair and the instance of military espionage against the administration - which as Rosen describes extended into the higher-echelons of the admiralty of the U.S. Navy, we see numerous and previously unpublished meeting notes - mostly by Haldeman - that describe the urgency of these monumental events in U.S. history.

But what's notable in this volume is the description of Mitchell, who Rosen reveals to be a more thoughtful, politically astute, and loyal person than others may have previously known. One telling situation was where Mitchell was seeking to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was coming up for renewal in 1970. Mitchell was actually interested in renewing and extending it throughout all the states, and not just those in the deep and historically segregated South. And while Nixon was shown by the White House tapes to be repeatedly anti-Semitic in his comments (particularly in references to the NY Times and the "Pentagon Papers" matter, Mitchell does not volley back similar epithets.

Additionally, Mitchell was shown to be outwardly steady in dealing with his wife Martha, who is shown to be a one-woman wrecking crew - a mentally unbalanced alcoholic who spent many late evenings making incoherent, alcohol-infused calls to newspaper journalists who were more than eager to print her comments in the next day's edition. In fact, her lime-green princess telephone, strategically located on the wall near her bathtub, attains a symbollic and surreal (if not iconic) status in Rosen's mind. But Rosen believes there is no question Mitchell was adversely affected in his AG role because of this (not to mention her profligate spending habits).

Next, Rosen tackles John Dean and his role in the Watergate affair. Rosen's research draws the conclusion that Dean was much more involved in the break-in and the subsequent coverup than earlier thought. In fact Rosen believes Dean ordered the break-in. The evidence for this, of course, is circumstancial, but in my own opinion, highly plausible. From G. Gordon Liddy's unveiling of the "Gemstone" plan, to the "Plumbers" unit, Mitchell is shown to be largely out of the loop; in fact, his lieutenants, Maurice Stans, Jeb Stuart Magruder and Fred LaRue, were given wide latitude in tasks such appropriating money, and making decisions regarding strategies for the election of 1972, and peripheral events -- including dealing with the Watergate burglars. And John Dean was the thread that connected all of them. He was the major link between the White House and CREEP (the Committee to Re-elect the President), and Rosen's conclusions are tantalizing.

In his testimony before the Senate Committee on Watergate, Mitchell crosses swords with North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin (who Rosen rightly describes as a hypocritical, alcoholic segregationist), and lead Senate counsel Sam Dash (who Rosen systematically demonstrates to be both impulsive and vindictive). About this time, President Nixon is shown by the tapes to have consistently have been calling for Mitchell "falling on his sword" and leaving - as if this would cause the Watergate clouds to separate and bring back the sun.

In his post-Nixonian life, Mitchell is shown to have struggled to make a living, and to provide for his two ex-wives (Martha had since served him with divorce papers) and daughter Marty. He was disbarred, so he had to resort to a "consultant" role in Washington. He also had signed with Simon and Schuster for a book (which presumably would center around Watergate and former wife Martha); but later backed out - whereupon, in 1981, he was sued for the return of his advance, which he never managed to pay back.

In summary, Rosen paints a largely sympathetic portrait of Mitchell, and uses sources that became available as late as 2001 to back his claims. It is a powerful story, and Rosen's efforts to set the record straight are direct and pointed. I enjoyed it immensely.

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