Day 919: Meet The Watergate-Stained Mitchells

originally published July 7, 2014

The spyglass of history has not been kind to the Nixon administration. I was born exactly seven weeks after Richard Nixon handed in his resignation and took that long lonely walk into his murky legacy. My generation, who grew up in the Reagan/Bush era, found only one defender of the Nixon presidency in pop culture, and the passion written into Alex P. Keaton’s dialogue was clearly meant to be satirical.

Those of us who cared to look into it – and given that we were a generation late and a country north, there weren’t many of us – saw an unsympathetic troupe of tie-wearing bastards, farting in the face of the law and crapping all over the seat of absolute American power. It’s a tale of ancient American history to us, as intangible and ethereal as the Kennedy conspiracy, Dewey defeating Truman or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff.

But it makes for fascinating drama. Anyone who has avoided the Dustin Hoffman / Robert Redford movie All The Presidents’ Men because it looks like a laggy political drama and hey, there’s a new Transformers movie out and explosions are more fun – just stop already. Yes, explosions are fun but this shit actually happened. Scoundrel, Montgomery-Burns-type dickheads really held that much power and abused it to a pulp. Rather than re-tell the whole affair here (a thousand words would scarcely get us through the DNC headquarters’ flimsily-locked door), I’m going to spotlight one scoundrel in particular: John N. Mitchell. And his wife. I’ve got to talk about his wife.

For thirty years John Mitchell was a municipal bond lawyer, and from what I’ve read he seems to have embraced every lawyer stereotype. He was shady and just enough on the smarmy side to gather some powerful friends. One of those friends was Dick Nixon, who tapped Mitchell to be his campaign manager in 1968. During the campaign, there arose allegations that the Nixon camp somehow sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks, which could have brought about an end to the Vietnam War.

That’s a scathing accusation, and given that I’m about three leagues out of my depth of knowledge on this topic, I don’t want to speculate on this. But it makes sense that allowing an unpopular war to carry on until election day would benefit those who wanted a change of regime. And given the rather unscrupulous goings-on this administration would later exhibit, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and go with my hunch that the campaign – and as its leader, John Mitchell – might have had something to do with keeping peace at bay.

Once Nixon scored his ’68 win, John Mitchell was appointed Attorney General. According to J. Edgar Hoover biographer Curt Gentry, Nixon made a direct appeal to Hoover, asking that the traditional background check be skipped in Mitchell’s case. In retrospect I think Dick wanted some dirty players in his lineup. Will Wilson (pictured above), who served as Mitchell’s Assistant Attorney General, had plenty to say about Mitchell’s policies, which included illegal wiretaps, preventative detention of suspects and hurling conspiracy charges at Vietnam War critics.

This all rubs me with the coarse sting of familiarity. I’d heard eerie first-hand accounts of people who were ‘preventatively detained’ around the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, and the notion of war critics as non-patriots is a phenomenon we just lived through again. But of course George “Good Times” Bush Jr. and his Attorney General never authorized a break-in. In Mitchell’s case, this is the juicy stuff.

John Mitchell stepped down from abusing the US justice system from the top, taking the reins as Nixon’s campaign manager once again in 1972. Because Nixon was kind enough to record every conversation, thus supplying investigators with incredibly easy evidence, it was quite clear how Mitchell played into the Watergate scandal. He was in it from the start, sitting in on numerous meetings to plan the break-in at the hotel. Once the burglars were picked up and locked away, Mitchell met up with the president on at least three separate occasions to discuss how to cover everything up.

It always amazed me how Nixon kept those recordings. I understand that a president would want documentation on their discussions – it keeps everyone honest about what was said. But when the core of your conversations involve explicitly illegal activities… just erase the tapes. Don’t hit ‘Record’ to begin with. For having achieved the highest political office in the land, Dick Nixon was a really shitty criminal. We know that now, and some folks were privy enough to know it back then.

One of those people was Martha Mitchell, John’s wife.

Before the events of Watergate came along and kicked the Nixon administration in the presidential nut-sack, and before John Mitchell was indicted in May 1973 on federal charges for obstructing a federal investigation of international financier (and big-time Nixon supporter) Robert L. Vesco, Martha Mitchell was a friend of the press. Reporters loved her; she was always well-coifed and brightly-attired, and quick to turn on that Arkansas charm.

But when the nefarious activities began to poke up like noxious weeds in the stolid routine of her day, she began to offer other stories to reporters. Once Watergate had become an omnipresent headline in every daily in this hemisphere, Martha began alleging to her friends in the press some of the strange goings-on involving her husband’s associates. Her apparent paranoia tweaked a few brows into full-on furrow. For Nixon’s people, the answer was clear: Martha was a drunk. She was insane. It was time for the press to know.

Martha claimed she was held against her will and pumped full of sedatives in a California hotel room in order to keep her from talking to the press. Her friends, her daughter, even John himself disavowed and discredited her. The two separated after John’s indictment. The 70’s were somewhat of a dark time in the Mitchell household.

Of course the truth won out in the end. John was acquitted in the Robert L. Vesco case, but he served 19 months in a minimum-security facility for his involvement in the Watergate fiasco. As for Martha’s delusions and outright paranoia, well they were all revealed to be justified. The mental health world has actually coined a term in her honor: the Martha Mitchell Effect. This occurs when a patient is incorrectly diagnosed as being paranoid or delusional, when it turns out that they were in fact telling the truth all along. Martha passed away in 1976 from myeloma, but she proved pivotal in the public unveiling of a truly heinous political faction.

As for John Mitchell, well if such a thing as a John Mitchell Effect exists, it can only be defined as someone who’s a power-hungry and deeply evil ass. I suspect in Washington there’s an epidemic.

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