Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Empire Strikes Back

"You will be better advised to watch what we do instead of what we say."

John Mitchell
July 1969

John Dean had wrapped up his testimony about a week and a half earlier, and Congress had adjourned for its July 4 recess.

When the Senate Watergate Committee resumed its business 40 years ago today, the former attorney general of the United States and former manager of Richard Nixon's re–election campaign, John Mitchell, was scheduled to testify. He testified for three days.

Mitchell and Nixon were friends before Nixon became president. They had been friends since 1946, and they were colleagues on the same law firm before Nixon launched his second campaign for the presidency. Mitchell managed Nixon's successful 1968 bid and Nixon's re–election campaign in 1972 as well.

For whatever reason, Mitchell had Nixon's full confidence. Many Americans did not realize this 40 years ago, but Mitchell seemed to understand Nixon's personality — and, as a result, occupied a unique role among Nixon confidantes.

He might have been better suited to be Nixon's chief of staff, but I suppose Nixon was drawn to Mitchell's accomplishments in the legal field.

When Mitchell joined Nixon's New York law firm in 1967, he occupied the office adjacent to Nixon's, Theodore White wrote in "Breach of Faith." The men had several things in common, White wrote — born only eight months apart, they were of the same generation, and both had been veterans of World War II.

"Nixon was lonely in New York," White wrote. "[H]e enjoyed visits to Mitchell's country home ... where he could pound the piano. Tart–tongued, bald–headed, Mitchell had an almost roguish charm — and an air of tough, unruffled calm. Smoking his pipe, he would sit at a conference table, almost always speak last, then speak with apparent good sense."

In his book about the 1972 campaign, White wrote that Mitchell was the "[h]ardest of all the hard men around the president, by far," and that truly was something in the Nixon White House. "[H]e was as charming a conversationalist as one could meet," White wrote, "and at the same time as cold a personality as one ever encounters in politics."

I didn't see Mitchell's testimony when it happened, but I saw clips from it many times after. And I would agree with White's assessment. Mitchell's cold public persona came across loud and clear.

When Mitchell began his testimony 40 years ago today, he was almost surely the most well–known representative of the Nixon administration to appear. Dean had made an instant splash because he was the first to point the finger at Richard Nixon. For that reason, more than any other, there had been much anticipation of his appearance. But he was virtually unknown before his testimony.

Two big names who would follow Mitchell into the witness chair in July 1973 — Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman — were highly placed Nixon loyalists, too, but they were not as well known. Like so many other things that summer, the relative anonymity of Haldeman and Ehrlichman would soon be things of the past, but, on this day in 1973, Mitchell was probably the most effective witness to make the case for Nixon in the aftermath of Dean's testimony.

And he took a bullet for Nixon 40 years ago today. He accused Magruder of lying in his testimony, and he disputed what Dean had said.

(Mitchell had a way with words. He was the one who labeled administration activities "White House horrors." It was a phrase members of the committee used when questioning Mitchell — sometimes incorrectly, in Mitchell's view. When Sam Dash, counsel for the majority, used the phrase in a reference to the Watergate break–in, Mitchell corrected him: "Those are not the White House horrors, Mr. Dash." The distinction? The planning of such an operation was a "White House horror;" the actual carrying out of the plan was not.)

But Mitchell's smug, often arrogant attitude, which may have been appropriate for a courtroom, made it hard for anyone, even Nixon's defenders on the Senate committee, to like him.

Dash asked Mitchell at one point about a meeting he had with G. Gordon Liddy at which illegal activities were discussed, "[W]hy didn't you throw Mr. Liddy out of your office?"

"Well, I think, Mr. Dash," Mitchell replied, "in hindsight I not only should have thrown him out of the office, I should have thrown him out of the window."

The remark drew a smattering of apparently sympathetic — and somewhat nervous — laughter.

"Well, since you did neither ..." Dash said as the committee room erupted in loud laughter, refusing to be diverted from his point, " why didn't you at least recommend that Mr. Liddy be fired from his responsible position at the [president's re–election] committee since obviously he was presenting to you an irresponsible program?"

To which Mitchell replied, "Well, in hindsight I probably should have done that, too."

Folks became more familiar with Haldeman and Ehrlichman when Mitchell testified for a second day.

After he returned to the stand, Mitchell said that Haldeman and Ehrlichman did participate in a coverup, but they did so to protect Nixon.

But first, he had to answer a question from Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, who observed that Mitchell had testified that he regarded Nixon's re–election to be so important that he was "willing to engage in activities which have been well described as being irregular."

"To what length are you now willing to go to deceive in an effort to avoid further implication of the president in the activities under investigation by this panel?" Inouye asked. "More specifically, are you willing to lie to protect the president?"

"I do not have to make that choice," Mitchell answered, "because, to my knowledge, the president was not knowledgeable."

After being grilled by the committee chairman, Sen. Sam Ervin, on decisions he had made following the Watergate break‐in, Mitchell remarked, "It is a great trial being conducted up here, isn't it?"

On his third day of testimony, Mitchell was questioned about conflicts in his testimony and vigorously defended his credibility.

I have often wished that I could have seen Mitchell's testimony when it was happening because I get the feeling, from seeing brief video clips and reading transcripts of his testimony, that he wasn't persuasive.

If anything, he struck me as being evasive. I always thought he was a weaselly sort.

"[Y]ou enjoy the distinction ... that it was your purpose not to volunteer anything," Dash said at one point. "Is there a distinction between your not volunteering anything and lying? If you do not volunteer an answer to a direct question, you might say you do not volunteer anything, but actually you are lying."

Mitchell's reply? "I think we would have to find out what the specifics are, what the particular occasion and ..."

See what I mean?

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