William Safire: Praises new bio of John Mitchell

Roundup: Talking About History

“The Strong Man,” by James Rosen, subtitled “John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate” (Doubleday, $35), is the most revealing and insightful book I’ve read about that era. Profoundly researched for 20 years by a reporter scrupulous about source notes, it is both a sympathetic and an unsparing character study of a complex historic figure previously portrayed as the caricature of a villain. I knew the dour Mitchell almost “in full” and can attest to this being a Pulitzer-quality biography.

To a famous phrase that will be reprised in the 2008 campaigns: the Southern strategy was supposedly concocted at a meeting that Nixon’s campaign manager, Mitchell, arranged with Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina at the 1968 Miami convention. Unknown to Nixon and Mitchell, one of the Southern delegates had been secretly outfitted with a tape recorder by The Miami Herald, which published a transcript of the session. Though the candidate made no blatant regional or racist appeals, Rosen recounts that a Nixon assurance not to treat the South “as a whipping boy” became the basis for characterizing the campaign as based on a nefarious Southern strategy.

I researched that phrase for my political dictionary. “The first writer to use the term ‘Southern strategy,’ ” wrote Senator Barry Goldwater in 1971, “was Joe Alsop, after his visit to my office back in the 1950s.” The Arizona conservative had pointed out to the columnist in that Eisenhower era that “the only areas where the Republican Party had been making gains were in the Southwest.” In his 1964 campaign, Goldwater did carry the five states of the Deep South, along with his home state, in the L.B.J. landslide. That was when the Democratic attack phrase, with its implicit charge of racism, attained its losing connotation.

Mitchell, as Nixon’s campaign manager in 1968, rejected that “strategy” in favor of one that targeted the “battleground states,” a phrase I can hear him saying in my mind’s ear. The paradox is this: the pejorative phrase now associated with his memory denotes the strategy he scorned, while the plan and phrase Mitchell gets no credit for — putting the most time and money into winning the electoral votes of the big battleground states — is the one that McCain and Obama strategists have now embraced.

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