BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James Rosen, author of ”The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate,” I don’t know if I counted right, but I found among your 200-plus interviews, the first one might be December 17, 1991, Peter Fleming, an attorney in New York. Am I right?
JAMES ROSEN, AUTHOR, ”THE STRONG MAN: JOHN MITCHELL AND THE SECRETS OF WATERGATE”: You are correct. I count that as the first interview, as well.
LAMB: Why did you call Peter Fleming? What were you doing at the time? And who was he?
ROSEN: Well, Peter Fleming was John Mitchell’s attorney, who represented him in his first criminal trial, where Mitchell and the former Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans, were on trial for influence-peddling charges in federal court in New York. And on those charges, they were acquitted in full.
Fleming was a brilliant, brilliant trial attorney, perhaps the most sought-after in New York City. And he represented John Mitchell in that trial.
The reason I made him my first interviewee was because, simply, he was a target of opportunity. I had not long before announced to my family that I was going to write a book about John Mitchell.
And my father – who was then, and remains, a practicing attorney in New York and a proud subscriber to the ”New York Law Journal” – saw an interview with Fleming on the front page. Fleming at that time was hired to probe who had leaked material about Anita Hill, an endeavor in which, uncharacteristically for him, he came up empty.
LAMB: The second interview was somebody named Elliott Lauer (ph)?
ROSEN: Yes. Elliott Lauer (ph) was there that day with Fleming, I believe. And he was a minor attorney on the same trial, as I recall.
LAMB: OK. Well, what were you doing in 1991, in October – in December?
ROSEN: It’s tough to remember, frankly, Brian. I was fresh out of college. I had graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 1990.
I had had in mind when I was in college that perhaps I would do, as a senior thesis for my political science degree, a biography, a short biography of John Mitchell, because I had already known quite a bit about Nixon and Watergate, and he was the one major figure who never wrote his own book.
There were three books about Martha Mitchell, his volatile, slightly crazy wife. There were no books by or about John Mitchell, who was one of the central figures of the era. As it turned out, I didn’t have to do a senior thesis.
And about a year or so after I got out of college – one of my professors there had been Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution and a veteran of the Nixon administration. And I sort of just turned to him for advice about it. And kind of with the idea that I’ve since learned, Brian, all great adventures begin, which is, ”Why not me?”
And so, that’s what I was up to in 1991. I think I was working in politics at the time. There was a time when I served as a press secretary and a speech writer to the borough president of Staten Island, my home town, Guy V. Molinari – no stranger to Washingtonians.
LAMB: John Mitchell – by the way, how old were you in 1973, 1972, 1971?
ROSEN: I was – well, I turned four in the late summer of 1972.
LAMB: So, all this research, and all you’ve done, is after the fact, after the incident.
ROSEN: Oh, yes.
LAMB: John Mitchell – who was he?
ROSEN: John Mitchell was Richard Nixon’s law partner in the mid-1960s, after Nixon had lost to John F. Kennedy for the presidency, lost his race to become governor of California, and he had come East to New York to make money. He was bored stiff. His law firm – Nixon’s – merged with John Mitchell’s, so they were law partners.
Mitchell then ran the 1968 presidential campaign for Richard Nixon, successfully. Mitchell then served as attorney general of the United States from ’69 to ’72, a very turbulent period, as you know, in American history – perhaps the most turbulent since the Civil War with the Black Panthers and the Kent State killings and the May Day riots and the Pentagon Papers, and a lot of other crises.
He resigned as attorney general in 1972, and later became embroiled in the Watergate scandal and was convicted on criminal charges arising therefrom. And thus, to-date, John Mitchell remains the highest-ranking United States government official ever to serve time.
LAMB: How many months?
LAMB: Where did he serve?
ROSEN: Mostly at Maxwell Federal Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. There’s a prison on the federal grounds there.
He was ill for much of that time, and so, he had a number of medical furloughs, as well.
LAMB: I think you say in your book that Richard Nixon talked to him as much as three times a week by phone when he was in prison?
ROSEN: That’s correct.
LAMB: What did they talk about? Do you know?
ROSEN: That is lost to history. I do know that Mitchell’s attorney at the time when he was prison, William Hundley, told me that he would make fun of Mitchell for even taking the calls. Like, ”Oh, how do you feel about this? You’re in the slammer, and Nixon’s out there. You going to take that call?”
And Mitchell would simply say, ”Bill, you don’t know everything.”
LAMB: So, after all this research and 17 years, do you know who ordered the Watergate break-in?
ROSEN: I come to some conclusions about that in the book.
LAMB: What are they?
ROSEN: John Dean, according to my conclusions, my research, my evidence that I was able to develop, is the most logical candidate in that three-decades-old mystery of who ordered the Watergate break-in.
ROSEN: This is complicated, but consider that the Watergate break-in was not just a break-in, it was actually a surveillance operation. It was a wiretapping operation.
It went on for approximately three weeks in May and June of 1972, before the infamous arrests of June 17, 1972.
There were two wiretaps that were planted inside Democratic National Committee headquarters. One was on the telephone of a secretary of Larry O’Brien, who was the Democratic National Committee chair at that time.
That wiretap never worked, could never have worked, because it depended on line-of-sight transmission to the receiving post, which was across the street from the Watergate office complex on Virginia Avenue in the old Howard Johnson’s motel, now a George Washington University dorm.
Those wiretaps required line-of-sight transmission. And where the listening post was set up did not have line-of-sight transmission to Larry O’Brien’s office. The person who installed the wiretaps knew that very well, because he was an exceptional technician – James McCord, one of the arrested men.
The other wiretap that was planted by the Watergate burglars was on the telephone belonging to R. Spencer Oliver and his secretary, Ida ”Maxie” Wells.
Spencer Oliver was a largely obscure, unknown DNC apparatchik. He was the executive director to the association of state party chairmen. He was gone much of the time.
That wiretap did enjoy line-of-sight transmission with the Howard Johnson’s listening post. It did, in fact, work. And it was monitored for the entire three weeks of the doomed operation.
For the last 30 years, almost all investigative bodies, almost all juries, almost all historians and writers on the subject of Watergate, have assumed that the target of the mission was, in fact, Larry O’Brien.
I, coming along much later, came at this from a slightly different perspective, which is to say, isn’t it counterintuitive to assume that the wiretap that could not have worked, didn’t work and was not monitored, was the real target of the mission, and the one wiretap that could have worked, did work and was monitored for the entirety of this surveillance mission was somehow extraneous?
And so, once one assumes that, in fact, the wiretap on Spencer Oliver’s telephone was in fact the true purpose of the mission, you can then get around to the question you asked, which was who ordered this mission.
And it is not my theory. I didn’t develop it. But there is a theory that emerged in the ’80s and the ’90s, called the call girl theory of Watergate, however incongruous it might seem to link Richard Nixon and call girls, or the two subjects at all.
And this theory postulated that this telephone of Mr. Oliver’s and Ms. Wells’ was being used to set up dates for incoming Democrats from out of town. And the call girl ring that is confirmed through police records and other evidence to have existed and to have operated from the Columbia Plaza Apartments, which are about two blocks away from the Watergate building, all of the contents of the intercepted conversations from this surveillance mission are protected by a gag order that was placed by federal courts in January 1973, around the time the arrested men were on trial.
However, we have some indications of what those intercepted conversations were about, the contents of them, through contemporaneous sources; through my own eight hours of interviews with the one man who knows best what he was listening to, the wiretap monitor in the Howard Johnson’s; an ex-FBI agent still alive named Alfred Baldwin, who I interviewed at great length in 1995; and through other sources. All of the known contents of those intercepted conversations were exceptionally sexually graphic.
Once you know now the true target of the mission, the nature of the intercepted conversations, you must ask: Who would have been in a position to know, even, that Spencer Oliver’s telephone would have been worth bugging at all?
And over the years, some scholars and writers zeroed in on John Dean, because of alleged connections between Mr. Dean’s girlfriend, and then wife, Maureen Dean – well-known to viewers of the Senate Watergate hearings – and the Columbia Plaza call girl ring. All of the research that I did on this subject over something like 15 years’ time tended to buttress this call girl theory.
I went into it an honest broker of information, Brian, just interested in getting to the truth. In fact, I began my work on this book believing that Mitchell was simply an underrepresented, but guilty as charged, figure. And ultimately, in trying either to substantiate or refute this call girl theory, my research tended to confirm it.
LAMB: There’s so many different stories in here. There’s a real character story, and it seems to permeate the book. I’m going to jump to page 384 and ask you about this scenario.
”On the evening of June 19th, Mrs. Mitchell repeatedly stormed downstairs to rebuke the press camped outside her building, growing more bellicose with each encounter. At 10 o’clock she flung a doorman’s cap at Associated Press reporter Judy Yablonski (ph), then cursed and slapped Yablonski (ph) twice.
”’You are a part of the Communists, every one of you,’ she raved at the assembled. ’If you dare come on this side of the street, I’ll call Governor Rockefeller.’”
ROSEN: Yes. This was the spring of 1973, when the Watergate cover-up was coming unglued, and increasingly, Mrs. Mitchell herself was coming unglued.
Martha Mitchell has been made into a heroin by some as a brave, truthful lady who was surrounded by evil men, and did her best to blow the whistle on them.
The fact is – as Mrs. Mitchell’s first husband, who is still alive, would have told you, as he did me, or as others who knew her well would have told you – this was a somewhat mean-spirited person who used to talk down to help and that sort of thing, who on top of that had a drinking problem, and who, on top of that, came under the enormous strain of watching her husband, the attorney general of the United States, become one of the most vilified men in the country.
And between all of that, she cracked. And the story you just read is rather sad and glaring evidence of that.
LAMB: By the way, I see that you talked to Jill, the daughter of John Mitchell.
ROSEN: From Mr. Mitchell’s first marriage.
LAMB: First marriage.
LAMB: But I didn’t see any reference that you talked to Marty.
ROSEN: Marty Mitchell was the only child of John and Martha Mitchell. She was around 10 years old at the time that Mitchell was serving as attorney general.
She, first of all, wasn’t easy to find. You have to remember, too, Brian, that my research on this book began before the Internet existed, before Al Gore got around to inventing it. And so, a name like Martha Mitchell could be very difficult to research.
I finally did find her, and she called me back in 1992, Marty did, and she was kind enough to tell me that it sounded like I was doing some great work, but that she is a very bitter person, she told me, and that she has been used a lot, that she might someday write her own book. And that, therefore, she was going to decline to cooperate with me.
And that was very straightforward, and I have never spoken with her since. That was around 1992.
LAMB: But you do have pictures in the book of her, older. And there are pictures also of the party that was held by Richard Nixon in 1979 at San Clemente for John Mitchell …
ROSEN: After he got out of prison.
LAMB: … after he got out of prison. And before you – I mean, we’ll show, obviously, the photo.
But what was their relationship? And in the end, in the middle of Watergate, who stuck by whom in this process?
ROSEN: John Mitchell was the closest thing to a friend that Richard Nixon had in government. Henry Kissinger told me in our interview that Nixon really had no close associations or relationships with anybody. He was probably too much the consummate politician to allow himself the indulgence or luxury of friendships, as most people know them.
But Mitchell was the closest thing to friend that Nixon had. And Mitchell was actually just a few months younger than Richard Nixon. But by all accounts, Nixon looked up to Mitchell as a sort of older brother figure.
And the story is told about how in cabinet meetings, Nixon would be addressing the assembled cabinet. And if he detected that Mitchell was displeased with something he was saying, he would stop abruptly and switch subjects. If he detected that Mitchell was slightly nodding and puffing on his pipe with approval, Nixon would continue.
Mitchell, although he served as attorney general, advised Nixon on an extraordinary range of issues, from the Vietnam War to the gold standard, and everything in between. And he was probably – indisputably, he was Nixon’s closest advisor in the government.
Once Watergate happened, Nixon was conflicted – and the tapes show this – about what he understood or believed Mitchell’s role to be. He wavered back and forth on the great question, did Mitchell do it, order this break-in. And therefore, was Mitchell culpable and was Mitchell a willing collaborator in the cover-up? And if so, what should Nixon do about it?
Nixon’s impulse was to fight this and to regard it as more partisan warfare of the likes he had seen in 25 years in the capital. Why should he cede a good man like Mitchell to the wolves, to the enemies?
And he talks about that on the tapes. He talks about how Eisenhower was all too willing to cede Sherman Adams to the enemies, throw him to the wolves.
”’Be sure he’s clean,’” Nixon quoted Eisenhower as saying. ”That’s all Ike cared about.”
But ultimately, Nixon, regardless of his views on the great question, did Mitchell do it, came to view Mitchell simply as a liability. And so, first, he and Haldeman – H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff – forced Mitchell out of the campaign. He was, at the time of the Watergate break-in, leading Nixon’s re-election, 1972 re-election campaign, and ultimately tried to force Mitchell to confess to the prosecutors and take responsibility for the whole scandal, which Mitchell rather understandably refused to do.
The tapes are replete in the spring of 1973 with instances of Nixon cursing Mitchell, agreeing with plans and plots and schemes hatched by Nixon’s underlings to get Mitchell to be set up as the fall guy for it.
At one point, John Ehrlichman – who was a Watergate conspirator and, prior to that, the chief domestic aide to the president of the United States – at one point asks Nixon, the president, ”Should I go gear up my office? I’ll have Mitchell come in for a little meeting, and I’ll try and smoke him out and make him go take the rap for this thing. But should I gear up my office?” By which Ehrlichman meant wire it for sound and make a tape recording of Mitchell.
And Nixon, himself an inveterate taper, almost with the same hobbyist’s enthusiasm said, ”Yes, go gear it up.”
And at one point, the tapes show Nixon saying, ”I think I’ve got to stay away from the Mitchell subject for a while, shouldn’t I.”
And he really did publicly. If you look at Nixon’s memoirs over the years, he was rather reticent on his treatment of Mitchell.
And at this party that you just mentioned, in September of 1979 in San Clemente, with the ex-president as host and Mitchell freshly out of prison, Nixon assembled the guests at poolside and said, ”John Mitchell has friends, and he stands by them.”
And everybody knew, everybody standing there knew, that in the National Archives, preserved forever on magnetic spools of tape would be 3,700 hours of evidence showing that Nixon did not stand by John Mitchell when the chips were down.
LAMB: As I said, you list in the back over 200 interviews that you – a lot of them by phone and some of them by mail. How many of them were in person?
ROSEN: That’s hard to say. I’ve never quantified it.
But where I sense that somebody was – where I sensed that it would be particularly advantageous for me, or just historic, I tried to go to it in person. And some interviews are of a nature where you’re showing people evidence and you’re laying out papers and documents, and there really is no substitute for face-to-face.
LAMB: So, paint the picture of how you did this. Where were you – I mean, in the middle of all this you got married, so your life changed. Where did you headquarter as you were starting this process back in 1991?
ROSEN: My original work on the book started with a grant from William F. Buckley, Jr., who I am very disappointed did not live to see the book. Publication was delayed at the end. And as a result, he didn’t live to see it.
But I was working out of wherever I was living at the time. There were periods of unemployment involved in this. There were – I started – I had two careers. One, as I mentioned earlier, in politics in New York City, and then I ultimately decided to go back to graduate school and get a journalism degree at Northwestern, which I did. And then, to crawl my way through small market television and forged a television career, which has landed me at Fox News.
And so, I moved around a lot, but I never lost sight of the goal, which was this book. And so, I did interviews from my parents’ house, when I was living with two buddies of mine after college. We had calls saying, ”Oh, it’s John Dean for you,” you know, or ”It’s Bob Woodward for you.”
So, at various – I was living in Rockford, Illinois, at one point. And all points, I would try to continue publishing on the subject at points of anniversaries or other points where Watergate would be of public interest.
And so, you asked about the methodology. Ideally, you would bull (ph) into the archives on a given subject and know everything there is to know about the paper trail before you would interview somebody who was intimately involved in that subject.
I never forgot in 1992, Walter Isaacson published probably the definitive biography of Kissinger. And he said – I think it may have been on your program – memories plus memoranda equals a book. Right? Which means the paper trail, the documents and the interviews from which you assemble a book.
But I recognized in the early 1990s that a number of the people of the Watergate generation, if you will, were dying off. And I could not take the risk that, while emerging myself in the archives, these people would slip away from me.
So, I sacrificed on methodology, and I did the interviews first with whatever best materials I could assemble. And I’m very glad for that, because a number of people who are listed in the interviewees’ list are gone.
LAMB: Who is gone that you actually sat down with? Do you remember, any of them?
ROSEN: Well, some of them were by telephone, as well. But Haldeman is gone. Ehrlichman is gone. Robert Mardian I did five interviews with, he’s gone.
There’s plenty of them. And I regret that.
LAMB: In all this, what was the – I mean, I’ll just read one here. This is on page 183. And this is what – I want to use this as an example of what you do throughout the entire book.
”Ehrlichman called me aside and said” – well, let me start at the beginning.
”At other times, Ehrlichman’s instigations reached across departmental lines. Frank Carlucci, later President Reagan’s defense secretary, remembered chairing his first meeting in 1970 as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
”’Ehrlichman called me aside and said, ’The president doesn’t think John Mitchell is managing worth a damn. His place is a mess. You’re to go over and tell him to shape up.’ That was my first assignment,’ Carlucci recalled in 2001.”
I assume that was an interview.
LAMB: And is that – that’s new. I mean, it’s one of the – often you say in an otherwise unpublished, or previously …
ROSEN: Transcript, previous – yes.
LAMB: How did you find so much that was unpublished?
ROSEN: By compiling so much of it.
One of the things I’m proudest of in this book, Brian, is that there were whole archives of official Watergate evidence that had never before been requested, let alone inspected, for examination by the previous armies of investigators who preceded me on this subject. And I’ll give you two examples.
I am the first researcher to exhaustively mine the internal staff memoranda of the Watergate special prosecution force – the staff lawyers on the Watergate special prosecutor’s staff.
It was important to have their memoranda, because it showed how they built their criminal case against John Mitchell, the highest-ranking official they would wind up convicting. And it shows what the prosecutors knew and when they knew it about Watergate, and about their star witnesses, John Dean and Jeb Magruder, both formerly aides to Mitchell.
Another example of evidence that had never before been even requested for examination by any researcher was 5,000 pages of executive session testimony, taken by the Senate Watergate Committee. So, everyone who lived through Watergate will tell you, ”I remember the hearings of 1973. I watched every minute of it.” Very few people probably watched every minute of it.
LAMB: When did you watch it?
ROSEN: I watched – I read the complete transcripts of the hearings.
LAMB: So, you didn’t physically watch, you read it.
ROSEN: I watched Mitchell’s testimony to catch nuances, which the National Archives provided to me, a videotape of it.
But for every one of those witnesses who appeared on television underneath the klieg lights of the Senate, the great Ervin Committee, almost invariably, all of them appeared first behind closed doors in executive session with Fred Thompson and Sam Dash, the committee counsel, and testified, gave sworn testimony behind closed doors.
We’re talking about the major witnesses before that committee – Dean, Magruder, Howard Hunt, Alexander Haig – you name it – James McCord. And no one had ever before – no researcher had ever before read that testimony.
And what it showed you was that there were subtle but very significant changes in the various witnesses’ testimony from closed doors with just the committee counsel to on television before the full committee. And then, even further still between that committee testimony on television and in the trial of U.S. v. Mitchell, because the great intervening event between the Watergate hearings and the trial of Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman was the disclosure of Nixon’s tapes.
I’ll give you an example. It is commonly recorded that John Dean’s testimony as a witness before the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the Watergate Committee, was later borne out, vindicated in toto by the Nixon tapes.
And in fact, in my research I uncovered a previously unpublished memorandum written by the Watergate special prosecutors entitled, if not this exactly, something like, material discrepancies between John Dean’s Senate testimony and the Nixon tapes. And a material discrepancy is a specific legal term, which means that that discrepancy is significant.
LAMB: If we had known everything that’s in your book back then, would it have changed anything, do you think?
ROSEN: I think so, yes. It’s quite possible Nixon would have survived in office.
ROSEN: Because the credibility and the testimony of his chief accusers would have been severely damaged.
LAMB: Do you think he should have survived?
ROSEN: That’s a different question.
And one of the things I say is – and this is not in the book, but these are sort of conclusions I reached in my research – would it have been better for the United States, and for the people of the United States and perhaps for the world, if the cover-up had succeeded? That is to say, if the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, the five people who were indicted for it plus Hunt and Liddy – the seven original defendants – had been permitted to walk, who would have been prejudiced by that event?
Ray Price, Nixon’s speech writer, has written that Watergate was unique amongst political scandals, in that no one got hurt except the perpetrators. There really – it’s almost a victimless crime. I guess Mr. Oliver and Ms. Wells and the others whose conversations were intercepted illegally are the victims of a crime. But one wonders how much damage they actually suffered as a result of it.
Would it have been better had Nixon’s famous smoking gun order, that the CIA should tell the FBI to just stay the hell out of this, period, had been observed? Then all of the activities that Howard Hunt had done for CIA prior to Watergate, and perhaps all the great season of disclosure that we entered in the 1970s, and the ensuing emasculation of the intelligence agencies, might not have happened.
And then, perhaps, who knows? Would 9/11 have happened? It’s an interesting thing to puzzle over.
Another conclusion I’ve reached – this is also not in my book; I did write about this in the ”Weekly Standard” when Bob Woodward’s book, ”The Secret Man” came out – is the following. Nixon and his men were paying money to the arrested burglars, and Hunt and Liddy and their families or lawyers at various times, from the time shortly after the arrests through March of 1973. The disclosure of this quote-unquote hush money being paid figured prominently in Nixon’s impeachment hearings.
At all times, in the payment of this money – at National Airport phone booths and other ingenious drop spots – Nixon and his men were in arrears. They never fully paid their debts. And in fact, the very last payment that was made to Howard Hunt was way short of what he was requesting and demanding – which he didn’t consider blackmail, by the way. He considered it the traditional remunerations of those involved in the spy game.
That amount that was paid to him as his last amount was arbitrarily decided by Fred LaRue, who was one of the Watergate conspirators.
In the famous ”cancer on the presidency” meeting, Dean says, ”Well, we’re being blackmailed and we need to pay money.”
And Nixon famously asks, ”How much?”
And Dean, plucking a figure that no one else had used says, ”I would say it’s going to cost us $1 million over the next two years or so.”
And Nixon famously said, ”Well, I know where that could be gotten.”
They never did pay it. They had nine months to pay this money to the arrested men and buy their silence, if you will.
The fact that Nixon and his men – and they talk about this on the tapes, about how ”This is not the type of thing we do. We’re not Mafia hoodlums. We don’t know how to launder money.”
Haldeman can be heard saying, ”I guess you take it to Vegas. I don’t know what you do.”
The fact that Nixon and his men proved so inept in this rather simple task – one which one cannot imagine any subsequent White House taking any more than 20 minutes to accomplish – perhaps warranted their removal from office.
You are the folks who are supposed to stand up to the Russians for us, and you can’t even deliver $1 million to five guys and their lawyers over nine months’ time?
So, maybe – you asked at the beginning of this long soliloquy whether it was right that Nixon should have – should Nixon have survived. And perhaps, on the basis of that ineptitude, he should not have.
LAMB: Now, we’ve heard that you worked for Guy Molinari, who went on to Congress and his daughter went on to Congress …
ROSEN: I worked for him after he had left the Congress, while his daughter was here.
LAMB: … that …
ROSEN: He was sort of the mayor of Staten Island, the borough president, yes.
LAMB: … that Bill Buckley helped you get started with all of this, this project, that you work for Fox News.
The one thing in this, in your background that might surprise people is one of your mentors is Dan Rather. Explain that.
ROSEN: First, I will explain to your audience that I am a registered independent. When I took this job with Fox News nine years ago, working under Brit Hume in the Washington bureau, I registered as an independent, and I am so registered today.
Dan Rather was a hero of mine growing up, to a level and an extent that I have never fully explained to him, because I don’t want him to regard me as a Hinckley-esque figure, or someone from who he needs to obtain additional security. But I had a bulletin board of Dan Rather clippings above my bed when I was, like, 13.
It’s that geeky, folks. It’s that bad.
And the irony of that is, of course, that I decided to become a broadcast journalist like Dan Rather, only to get into the business at a point when, as my recent reading of Roger Mudd’s book convinced me anew, the business is very different from what it was in Rather’s day – Rather’s heyday.
But in any case, I applied for a job to work for Rather in one of my periods of unemployment. And he saw on my resume that I had worked for the Nixon Presidential Materials Project – a branch of the National Archives that controls Nixon’s papers and tapes – for two summers in college. And he saw a lot of other sort of examples of my Nixonophilia (ph), if you will. And he decided he wanted to meet me.
And from that grew an association with Rather that lasted – well, to this day, but which in professional terms lasted on and off for about three years, in which I would do research for Dan on subjects that were of interest to him outside his normal duties as anchor and managing editor of CBS News – basically, reading certain books, summarizing certain books, reviewing transcripts of things – subjects that were of interest to him and that he thought he might write about someday, and about which he has yet to write.
LAMB: Have you provided him with a copy of your book?
ROSEN: Oh, yes. And he – there’s a blurb on the back jacket.
LAMB: It’s blurbed by Michael Beschloss, Dan Rather, Richard Reeves, Dwight Chapin, David Margolick and Tom Wolfe.
ROSEN: I’m very proud of that.
LAMB: Did you ask for those yourself?
LAMB: The Dwight Chapin one, though, of all the ones there would be relevant for what reason?
ROSEN: Chapin was an aide to President Nixon, even pre-dating his presidency, and worked very closely with Nixon. He has never written a book about Watergate or his experiences. He did serve prison time for offenses unrelated to the Watergate break-in.
And the reason those folks are chosen as they are, is that you have both people who have written specifically about Nixon, like Richard Reeves, eminent presidential historian, like Michael Beschloss. You have someone who knew Nixon well, like Dwight Chapin. You have someone who covered Nixon as a reporter and can never be accused of being a conservative propagandist in Dan Rather. And Tom Wolfe is a hero of mine, and I’m very pleased that he’s there, as well.
LAMB: Why is Tom Wolfe a hero of yours?
ROSEN: Tom Wolfe is probably my favorite writer. And something was said of him. I think the ultimate compliment was paid to Tom Wolfe as a reporter. Wolf has been writing novels for the last two decades, but he remains at heart a reporter, and that’s what he began as.
And when his novel, ”A Man in Full,” came out – clearly, he has been using his novels to continue his reportorial observation – there’s a blurb on the back cover of ”A Man in Full” in which it says – I think it was Newsweek – ”No reporter has gotten more of his times down onto paper than Tom Wolfe.” What higher compliment could there be?
LAMB: Audio tape from the Nixon tapes I want to run. It’s about a minute-and-a-half. And the voices on there are Richard Nixon, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger. And this has to do with the Pentagon Papers that have just come out, and they’re talking about what to do about it.
ROSEN: So, this would be June of 1971.
LAMB: Which was year before the Watergate break-in.
ROSEN: The Watergate arrests, that right.
LAMB: And may had been two years and a half into their presidency at this time.
All right. Let’s listen to this, and I’ll get your reaction to it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JOHN MITCHELL: Mel had a pretty good go up there before the committee today on it. And it’s all over town and all over everything. And I think we’d look a little silly, if we just didn’t take this low-key action of …
RICHARD NIXON: Did Mel …
MITCHELL: … advising him about the publication.
NIXON: Did Mel take a fairly hard line on it?
MITCHELL: Yes. He – ha-ha-ha – gave a legal opinion, and that it was a violation of the law, which, of course, puts us at where we have to get …
NIXON: Well, look – look, as far as the ”Times” is concerned, hell, they’re our enemies. I think we just ought to do it. And anyway, Henry, tell him what you just heard from Rostow.
HENRY KISSINGER: Rostow called on behalf of Johnson. And he said that it is Johnson’s strong view that this is an attack on the whole integrity of government, that if you – that if whole file cabinets can be stolen and then made available to the press, you can’t have orderly government anymore.
MITCHELL: Well …
KISSINGER: And he said, if the president defends the integrity, any action we take he will back publicly.
MITCHELL: Well, I think that we should take this, do some undercover investigation, and then open it up after your McGovern-Hatfield.
MITCHELL: We’ve got some information we’ve developed as to where these copies are and who they’re likely to – have leaked them. And the prime suspect, according to your friend, Rostow, you’re quoting, is a gentleman by the name of Ellsberg, who is a left-winger that’s now at the Rand Corporation, who also has a set of these documents.
NIXON: Subpoena them. Christ, get them.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
LAMB: So, what’s the circumstances around that? What happened after that?
ROSEN: Well, ultimately, Nixon and Mitchell decided that they would try to use the courts to enjoin the ”New York Times” from continuing to publish the Pentagon Papers.
For the benefit of our viewers who may be new to these subjects, the Pentagon Papers was 7,000 classified documents tracing the origin of American involvement in Vietnam. And this was a study that had been commissioned by the previous administration, the LBJ administration, but which the ”New York Times” had gotten access to these papers through the leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, who had had access to them, and was now publishing them during Nixon’s time.
Nixon’s initial inclination was to let the ”Times” continue publishing the papers, because after all, they showed only duplicity and deception by previous and Democratic administrations. But as you could hear on that tape, Kissinger is trying to move the president in a different direction, believing that foreign allies would not regard the United States as a trustworthy partner, if classified secrets were to be spilled – on the level of full file cabinets – on the front pages of the ”New York Times” every day.
I also enjoy that conversation, because you can hear Mitchell slightly tweaking Kissinger, saying, your friend Rostow tells us that the culprit here is Ellsberg. Kissinger had an association with Ellsberg. Kissinger had an association with the Johnson administration. Kissinger’s staff was widely thought within the Nixon administration to be left-winger – left-wing in nature.
And so, ultimately, as you know, the ”New York Times” was permitted, by virtue of a historic Supreme Court ruling to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers. Nixon, dissatisfied with the FBI investigation into Ellsberg, and its pace, created his own what the White House called special investigations unit – later, better known as ”the Plumbers,” with the idea of plugging leaks like this.
Just like about a month-and-a-half after the Pentagon Papers found their way into the front pages of the ”New York Times,” the ”Times” also reported the secret American fallback negotiating position at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the SALT talks, with the Soviet Union. And that was very current-day stuff. That was not six or eight or 10 years old.
And that drove Nixon up the wall and accelerated his desire to have an in-house team like the Plumbers, that would combat leaks like this.
The fact is, Brian, while Nixon is popularly remembered as a paranoid figure, he did have enemies. And the number and the depth and the frequency of the leaks of highly classified material to the news media that Nixon and Mitchell were forced to confront was unlike anything that any policy maker has ever confronted in U.S. history before or since.
LAMB: There are 600 pages here, and we have about 20 minutes. I want to jump – and anybody that’s interested in all the details, obviously, can buy the book. But I wanted to jump – what seemed to me to be new, personal stuff that I had never seen before.
First, you have a picture here that I want to show the audience of John Mitchell in 1985, going back to the Justice Department, where they unveiled his portrait. And it just – it struck me.
Why would you have in the Justice Department, where our laws are administered, the attorney general who had spent 19 months in prison, back there for an unveiling of his portrait?
ROSEN: Number one, because it is an honor accorded to all occupants of the office. And Mitchell’s subsequent disgrace did not detract from the fact that he served as attorney general.
And as a matter of fact, the crimes for which Mitchell was convicted – and as you know, in my research, I come to the conclusion that he only committed one of the 10 overt acts of which he was charged and convicted – all took place after he had concluded his time as attorney general. So, there is – as far as Mitchell’s service as an attorney general of the United States goes, it was wholly honorable.
LAMB: What was the end of his life like?
Mitchell got out of prison in January of 1979. He was the oldest and the last of all the president’s men to emerge from prison. And just think about how different times were, from 1969 to 1979.
On the day that he left prison, the ”New York Times” was reporting about an uprising in the streets of Tehran in support of the Ayatollah Khomeini – a very different time than even when Mitchell left office in 1972.
He was disbarred, so he couldn’t practice law, but he had to make a living. He was deeply in debt.
He proved unwilling to deliver on the contract that he had signed with Simon & Schuster. He had accepted $50,000 to produce a memoir of the Nixon years. But as his lawyer, Hundley, told me, Mitchell didn’t want to write about Watergate, and he didn’t want to write about Martha Mitchell – which were the two subjects, of course, that any publisher would have wanted him to write about.
And so, ultimately, he had to give the money back, and he never fully gave it all back. And ultimately, the publisher wound up suing his estate.
So, he didn’t write a book. How else was he going to make a living? So, uniquely amongst the Watergate convicts, Mitchell returned to Washington, D.C., to the scene of his evisceration, and became a consultant, which is a nebulous word that can mean a lot of different things. And for Mitchell it meant serving as a middleman in bizarre business deals amongst bizarre casts of characters.
He was fortunate enough to have in his life at that time, a woman named Mary Gore Dean – still alive – and who allowed Mitchell – who became his companion is the word that’s often used about them – and gave Mitchell a home, a sense of family in Washington and an existence of sorts. But …
LAMB: Is that Gore any relationship to Al Gore?
ROSEN: It is. This is part of the extended Gore family that also includes Gore Vidal and Al Gore, and which is best known perhaps today for the antique store in Georgetown, Gore Dean Antiques. Insert plug here.
LAMB: But the Gore Antiques, run by Deborah Gore Dean?
ROSEN: That’s right, Deborah Gore Dean.
LAMB: Was at the Housing and Urban Development Department. And what’s the story there about John Mitchell as a consultant, using money in the campaign or getting favors out of Deborah Gore Dean?
ROSEN: Well, Mary Gore Dean’s daughter, Debbie Dean, came to see Mitchell like a father figure and loves him deeply to this day.
Mitchell, while he was serving as a consultant for various business concerns, started to do business with developers who had business before the Housing and Urban Development Department, where Debbie Dean was a high-ranking official.
Ultimately, as we all know, there ensued a large scandal involving HUD, which achieved the status of getting its own special prosecutor. And Debbie Dean was brought up on charges after Mitchell died of what we would call corruption charges. She was ultimately convicted.
In that indictment, John Mitchell was listed posthumously as unindicted co-conspirator number one. Had he lived past the day he died in November of 1988, when he died of a heart attack on the street in Georgetown, he probably would have had another go-round with a special prosecutor.
Ms. Dean fought her convictions all the way to the Supreme Court. They were upheld. She never had to serve prison time, but she did serve some time under something akin to house arrest.
And ultimately, it’s also worth noting that the special prosecutor in the case publicly, during the time that he was prosecuting Debbie Dean, told ”USA Today” that he regarded that John Mitchell, while serving as attorney general, had blocked him from a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
That’s the kind of thing that, when a prosecutor discloses that about unindicted co-conspirator number one, or about the man whom the defendant in the case regarded as ”Daddy,” should alert us, perhaps, to a gross example of prosecutorial conflict of interest.
LAMB: On, again, the personal side, you suggest that John Mitchell had a number affairs, and that he’d even had an affair with Martha Mitchell while he was married to his first wife.
ROSEN: The evidence for that last assertion is that Mitchell married Martha Beall Jennings 11 days after Mitchell’s divorce from his first wife became official.
The question about how John Mitchell met Martha Mitchell was shrouded in mystery. Everyone I interviewed had a different story for it.
And in fact, Brian, this gets to a larger methodological problem I faced in writing about John Mitchell, which is that every single stage and aspect of his life is enshrouded in factual dispute. Whether or not he married Mary Gore Dean, for example, toward the end of his life. Whether or not he played hockey for the New York Rangers when he was a younger guy. Whether or not he served as John F. Kennedy’s commanding officer in World War II.
It took a lot of years and a lot of research to resolve these various factual disputes. I think he liked it that way.
LAMB: How many of those did you resolve, though? I mean, did you find some that we didn’t know? All this business about his personal relationships, was that known before you got to the – before your book?
ROSEN: Well, it was a matter of public record that he had married Martha Mitchell very soon after his divorce. But again, there had never been a biography of John Mitchell. And so, was this known, again, for rather surprising reasons given how important a guy this was, how important an actor in the American political scene, Mitchell was – no one had ever bothered to write his biography.
And so, I don’t think that anyone had focused on these issues before.
LAMB: How long did John Mitchell – was he a law partner of Richard Nixon’s in New York?
ROSEN: Their firms merged on December 31, 1966. It was a great pleasure of mine to handle the actual document that carried both of their signatures on the merger contract – the actual ink, the actual documents.
And Nixon ran for president in 1968. And so, really, they only served as partner together for about a year, during which time Nixon was largely assembling the building blocks of his ’68 campaign.
LAMB: And what did John Mitchell do in the ’69 campaign?
ROSEN: Mitchell ran it. He was the campaign manager.
LAMB: And what did he do in the ’72 campaign?
ROSEN: He ran it. He was the manager until about a week after the Watergate arrests, when he resigned from that position.
LAMB: You never met him.
LAMB: If he were sitting here today, alive, and you were able to interview him, what’s the first question you’d have for him?
ROSEN: Wow, that’s a great question.
”What do you think of the book?”
LAMB: Second question.
If you could go back in the process of your research, what do you want to know from him?
ROSEN: I suppose I would want to know why Mitchell continued to display such extraordinary loyalty to Nixon, even after the tapes were disclosed and showed how cynically Nixon had betrayed Mitchell.
LAMB: You say that he was the top municipal bonds lawyer in the United States.
ROSEN: That’s right.
LAMB: How could the top municipal bonds lawyer in the United States die intestate?
ROSEN: Because, A, he was married to Martha Mitchell, who enjoyed a singular talent for spending other people’s money.
LAMB: In other words, he didn’t have a will.
ROSEN: Oh, no. He had a will, but it was contested amongst, I believe the daughters from different marriages.
LAMB: And you also talk about, when he divorced his first wife, he gave her 35 percent of his earnings for the rest of her life?
ROSEN: The divorce terms for Mr. Mitchell’s first wife were exceptionally generous. And I think Mitchell did that willingly. But later in the divorce proceedings with Martha Mitchell, it emerged that the terms had been so singularly generous as to provide him the ability to marry Martha quickly.
There is some evidence that Martha Mitchell was pregnant when Mitchell married her. And there was also evidence that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, let Mitchell know that he knew that. And so, that might explain that very small gap between end of marriage number one and beginning of marriage number two.
LAMB: You have a picture here of Martha Mitchell, daughter Jill and John Mitchell.
ROSEN: Mitchell’s daughter Jill, yes.
How much – could you have written this book without Jill?
ROSEN: No. And …
LAMB: Explain where she is and what she did to help you in this book.
ROSEN: Jill Mitchell-Reed is a lady in probably her early 60s at this point. She lives in Florida. I believe she’s a professor there. I think she teaches English. She’s a very charming, bright lady.
I regret to say that, in my very first session of – a few sessions of interviews with her in 1992, I, being 23 at the time and a novice at the craft of interviewing and at the process of writing a biography, asked a number of questions that upset her. And we spent about 11 years without her talking to me and without her helping me.
And then, finally, around 2003, or thereabouts, she allowed me to come down to Miami, where she lives, and to spend a really – a very moving day with her, in which we took out some old documents, and she allowed me to go through all of her holdings of family photographs, which explains the presence of a number of them in the book, and without which, as you say, this book would not be as good as it is.
I am extraordinarily indebted to Jill. And she represents somebody who overcame her rather profound misgivings about not just the specific gentleman who had assigned himself the task of writing her father’s biography, but also about the biographical enterprise.
Her father was such a uniquely inscrutable individual, she doubted that any biographer could ever truly nail him to the printed page. Maybe she’s right about that. She hasn’t told me yet what she thinks of the book. I hope she will feel – all puns intended – that I did her father justice.
LAMB: So, what would you advise somebody that would be heading out on a project just like this, right now? What would you advise them about just the difficulty of doing a book like this? What should they avoid?
ROSEN: Well, dilatory tactics, number one.
I would – there’s a book out now written by a woman who has written numerous biographies. And the title of the book is ”Shoot the Widow.” And that’s humorous. And the idea of it is that you should first find a way to circumvent the person who is determined to try and control the subject’s legacy somehow.
I wouldn’t advise shooting any widows. But I would give the same advice that I quoted from Isaacson, which is memories plus memoranda, and you’ve got a book.
If you get a hold of something like ”The Haldeman Diaries,” the temptation is to believe that it is a sacrosanct, completely reliable account of things, just because the guy was writing it down every day. But the fact is, it, like any other source, has to be cross-checked against other sources.
And so, I would also give the advice of, ”Take your time. Do it right.”
LAMB: Where did you write the book finally?
ROSEN: Here in Washington. I got a contract for it from Doubleday in 2002. Then it dawned on me I would actually have to write the thing. And I did a lot of writing, actually, during the 2002 and 2004 campaigns, which I was covering for Fox News. So, wrote it on Air Force One. Wrote it on buses and planes and trains.
And I am also, I should point out, since I have this opportunity, that I am indebted to Philip Glass, the composer, whose music, whose uniquely repetitive and sinister and ominous and insidious music was the perfect thing to put me in a Watergatey frame of mind. And I thank him in the acknowledgments.
LAMB: After all this is done, what’s your opinion of Richard Nixon as a person?
ROSEN: Deeply flawed. Brilliant, talented. And probably that we lost more than we gained when he was forced to resign.
LAMB: What do you mean by that?
ROSEN: That he was uniquely qualified to be president. That probably, had the bloodletting ended, say, by the middle of 1973, he would have learned his lesson pretty well. And that subsequent events have shown that we were better off with Nixon as president than we were without him, I think.
LAMB: Well, John Mitchell – you actually start the book by suggesting that John Mitchell told a story about his life that was totally untrue. And …
ROSEN: Yes, some childhood stories.
LAMB: Yes. Tell one of those stories, and then why would you believe anything he said after that?
ROSEN: Mitchell was only interviewed once, in 1970, on the specific subject of his childhood and his formative years, of the Long Island newspaper, ”Newsday,” and proceeded to tell some stories that survived into the literature about him, that were completely untrue. To wit, that he and his brother had heaved their school books into a fire when their school burnt down, or that they had burned down their whole house with sparklers during a Fourth of July celebration. This would be the 1920s in Long Island.
And as a matter of fact, Mitchell’s sister-in-law said to me, ”You know, I would really appreciate it if you would correct some of the problems about Mitchell,” you know, sort of the lies and the falsehoods, such as that, for example, he was a pyromaniac and that he burned down his house.
As it turned out, Mitchell himself was responsible for perpetuating those stories. And the only way I was able to discern the fact that they weren’t true was that I became the first person to interview Mitchell’s brother, who was 83 when I finally found him …
ROSEN: … Robert Mitchell – about eight years into my work.
And again, how much would this book have suffered if I had not found the only surviving member of Mitchell’s boyhood family?
The best Watergate tapes and Nixon tapes only became available in the year 2000, nine years into the project.
So, every time I’m tempted to kick myself that this took me 17 years, I feel like there were reasons, good reasons, to wait.
LAMB: What are you going to do with all the material you’ve collected after this is over?
ROSEN: I hope to donate it to some kind of university library and receive, accordingly, a generous tax deduction.
LAMB: And did you find a character in here that you want to follow on and do another biography on?
ROSEN: There is no shortage of subjects that an enterprising reporter or historian, investigator could do related to Nixon, Watergate, surrounding members of his staff.
Watergate should be treated like the Civil War, as this great metamorphosis of an event in American history with tons of rich characters, each of whom deserves their own biography.
We have bookshelves of literature about each minor general in the Civil War. Somebody should do a good biography of H.R. Haldeman, or maybe a dual biography of him and Ehrlichman.
Somebody should do a more – my original manuscript was 500,000 words. It was cut more than in half to produce the book. I did so much research on the details of the Watergate surveillance operation, there is a whole book in that.
And so, I encourage other people to follow up. I won’t be staying with the subject.
LAMB: James Rosen, our guest. The book is called ”The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate,” published by Doubleday. And we thank you.
ROSEN: Brian, thank you.