Washington Post review dismisses new biography of John Mitchell

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[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.]

... 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.

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