By William Safire – The New York Times.
WASHINGTON— ”Watch what we do, not what we say,” Attorney General John Mitchell advised reporters at the start of the Nixon Administration.
Coming from the law-and-order campaign manager with the visage of a bloodhound, that epigram was interpreted as the epitome of political deceptiveness.
But his intent was to reassure blacks that, foot-dragging poses aside, the Nixon Justice Department would accomplish desegregation. John Mitchell knew that the appearance of a tilt toward white Southerners would ease the way for acceptance of steady civil rights progress for blacks, and sure enough, what he did in this area was much better than what he said.
Many of the Nixon clan that gathered for the funeral of John Mitchell last weekend understood that abyss between the persona and the man. Dour, stern, taciturn, forbidding on the outside, and warm, loyal, staunch, steadfast on the inside; few public men have so deliberately cultivated the widespread misconceptions of themselves.
Yes, this was ”the Big Enchilada,” the first man tossed off the sled for the culmination at Watergate of the series of previous lawbreakings that he came to call ”the White House horrors.” Nobody denies his transgression: The spying plan put forward by the Magruder-Liddy toadies and crazies, which John Mitchell reduced but ultimately approved, was plainly criminal, and the former Attorney General should have known it.
However, the familiar faces of a short generation ago were gathered to salute the private John Mitchell. Ron Ziegler, Pat Buchanan, Len Garment, Dwight Chapin, Rose Woods were there, and we knew Richard Nixon would attend – he goes to the funerals that matter. Most of John’s key Justice Department aides came, notably excepting Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose record of self-serving abstention in re: Mitchell is now complete.
What was it that made John Mitchell different from all the Nixon men? In a word: constancy. The heat of Watergate’s crucible transformed everybody else. John Ehrlichman loosened up and became a novelist; Bob Haldeman’s crewcut disappeared with much of the toughness it symbolized; Chuck Colson and Jeb Magruder were born again; even Richard Nixon adapted and changed. But through it all John Mitchell remained John Mitchell – always the villain outside, often a hero inside.
About the hero part. The clips all say he was the commander of John F. Kennedy’s PT boat unit in the Pacific during World War II. Less well known are his two Purple Hearts for wounds in combat; John Mitchell, an athlete who played professional hockey to earn his way through law school, would wear long pants to the beach later in life because one leg had been riddled by machine-gun bullets.
He never spoke of his war record; such modesty is rare in politics, but exploitation of his naval service would have been out of character. One sad night, medals and citations were committed to the fireplace, which did not embitter him; nothing did. His friend Richard Moore, in a eulogy, pointed out that near the Mitchell grave in Arlington was the headstone of Col. Gregory (Pappy) Boyington, a Medal of Honor winner who used to call John Mitchell every year to thank him for saving his life.
Aware of his wife Martha’s propensity to make wild phone calls during sleepless nights, John sought no job after the campaign ended; Richard Nixon talked him into coming to Washington. He set out to serve his country and wound up serving his time.
We had a long lunch the week before he died. Because he had been the nation’s foremost municipal bond lawyer before being asked to manage political campaigns, I wanted his view of the effect of poison-pill defenses on corporate bonds.
He thought all new bonds would have to be drawn with fresh guarantees. He added a column idea: that government tax policy was dangerously tilted to encourage debt at the expense of equity, and that we should cap the deductibility of bond interest while ending double taxation of stock dividends. The mind that put him first among 1,200 on his bar exam was sharp to the end.
He was proud of his many offspring, busy with his business, happy with the woman he loved, surprised by the gutsiness of the Bush campaign, and especially delighted with the Rehnquist success on the Court. He stayed in touch with the President to whom he had proven so loyal; the inner fortitude of both brought them back from the depths of disgrace.
To paraphrase: Judge constant John Mitchell for the totality of what he did – both right and wrong – and not merely by what his detractors said.