The Man Who Wouldn't Fink

After school television meant old cartoons, old movies, reruns of old tv shows and talk shows when I was a child. My older sister preferred talk shows so that's what we watched. Mike Douglas's talk show was filmed in Philadelphia (near my home town) and he'd have a guest on as a co-host for an entire week. It was a weird set up and apparently all you needed to qualify as a co-host was a free week to spend in Philly. One week the co-host was Martha Mitchell, the estranged wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell. This was at the height of the Watergate scandals and Martha was a celebrity of sorts. Mike Douglas smarmily prodded Martha to say outrageous things about President Nixon and Washington in general, not that she needed much prodding. Or that smarmy was unusual for Mike. She was an attention junkie and good old Mike was happy to let her humiliate herself for an entire week. At one point Martha lead a video tour of her sumptuous 5th Avenue apartment and she pointed out a portrait of her daughter Marty. She noted that Marty wouldn't speak to her anymore because the child blamed her for what had happened. Then it was time to talk about the fabric on the walls in the bedroom. I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time and I could clearly see what no one on the show was willing to mention: Martha was batshitcrazy. She was nuts.

When The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate came out my first thought was: oohhh, crazy Martha stories. I'm not proud of this reaction and all I can say it my defense is that my second reaction was: I really never understood what John Mitchell did or is supposed to have done. This is due to my age and the fact that once you get into the details, Watergate is a mind numbing scandal. Say what you will about Bill Clinton, at least he gives good scandal.

James Rosen may not make Watergate scintillating (even Robert Redford couldn't do that) but he manages to present the facts in a clear, lucid manner. Of the three Watergate books I've read this is the one that had me wishing for more diagrams the least. Not that this is really a Watergate book. It's a biography of John Mitchell. I started this book thinking of Mitchell as the large man who didn't say much, didn't write a "tell-all" book, and didn't seem like the right accessory for Martha.

I ended the book not liking John Mitchell - I get the feeling that 50s corporate guy that he was, big John thought of woman as wives, girls or dames - but having a weird respect for him. He made his name finding loopholes for the bond market. He got into politics because his law practice gave him connections in the political apparatus of all 50 states. He doesn't seem to have had any deeply felt political beliefs other than wanting those wacky 60s kids to obey the law and feeling that racism was probably a bad idea. He wasn't a nice guy or especially admirable except for one thing. Just like an old James Cagney movie gangster, John Mitchell didn't fink. He didn't whine either. He manned up and clammed up. Maybe I find this admirable given the current climate of "It wasn't my fault!" and "Let me tell you about my lousy childhood." John Mitchell never went tabloid and good for him.

Rosen makes the case that Mitchell was far less involved with Watergate and that most of what appeared to have been engineered by him was actually the work of John Dean. I always found John Dean to be uber creepy. That and the fact that Watergate appears to have been the best thing that ever happened to him incline me to give Rosen's theory a sympathetic listening. That said I don't pretend to have followed every one of his arguments. He raised enough doubts for me to wonder, though. Rosen comes close to absolving Mitchell in the Vesco scandal too (not worth looking into if you don't know it already) and here I agree that a) Mitchell was probably more guilty of the appearance of wrongdoing (which is bad enough given he was the Attorney General) and b) that Mitchell thought he was "doing a favor" the way he'd done a thousand times on Wall Street. Not that Rosen thinks Mitchell was innocent. He uncovers two "crimes" that should at least have been investigated but never were.

But what about Martha? She was crazier than I thought. I wouldn't have actively sought out John Mitchell but if I was stuck next to him on an airplane it probably wouldn't have been so bad. Sitting next to Martha, however, would have had be locking myself in the restroom. Even without the alcohol abuse and the exhibitionism and assorted mental illnesses Martha was not a nice person. To put it mildly. Whether making racist comments, smacking a reporter, calling several reporters communists, calling for the crucifixion of a senator or throwing bar ware at dinner guests, Martha was a shrew on wheels. The idea that she "knew the truth" about Watergate is just hilarious in retrospect. The only thing Martha new was how to get attention. And that's all she cared about too. Either you think your husband has committed a crime against the nation (in which case you leave him) or you don't. You don't change your mind on a daily basis about that nor do you in any case spend the wee hours of the morning calling reporters to bitch about the president, your husband, and communist Democratic senators from Arkansas.

A more compelling question than "why didn't John Mitchell squeal?" is "why did he stay with Martha for so long?" Rosen seems to conclude that is was a combination of love, duty and a desire to protect his daughter Marty. The same Marty whose portrait Martha showed on Mike Douglas. The same Marty who refused to see or talk to her mother ever again. It was fashionable for a few years to see Martha as a feminist icon or a brave truth teller. I never bought into that. I always saw a sad woman looking for attention who was used and used and used until she was used up. And then she was thrown away.

After 35 years, its possible that enough time has passed that Watergate can be assessed with dispassion and on the facts. Rosen makes a good start. I'm still in awe of the truly repulsive group of characters that made up Watergate and still wondering how a man as successful as John Mitchell ever got involved with these low rent wannabes.

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