John Newton Mitchell

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MITCHELL, John Newton

(b. 15 September 1913 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 9 November 1988 in Washington, D.C.), lawyer, attorney general of the United States, and naval officer.

Mitchell was the only child of Joseph Charles Mitchell, a businessman, and Margaret Agnes (McMahon) Mitchell, a homemaker. When Mitchell was about three years old, he and his family moved from Michigan to Long Island, New York, where he attended elementary schools in Blue Point and Patchogue. At Jamaica High School in Jamaica (Queens), New York, he received the nickname "Big John." An athlete who excelled at ice hockey, he was, he said, an unexceptional student. He graduated from high school in 1931 and then entered Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, graduating in 1931. He earned his law degree in 1938 from Fordham Law School.

In 1936, while still in law school, Mitchell worked as a clerk for the law firm Caldwell and Raymond. After passing the bar exam in 1938, he joined the staff. His assignment was to find ways for state governments to circumvent laws that required voters to approve the issuance of bonds so that the governments could finance public housing developments. His solution was to create nonprofit organizations that could back their bonds with the rent they would receive from residents of the housing developments. He quickly became in demand for his skill in writing bond proposals. In April 1942 Mitchell was made a partner in the firm.

From 1943 to 1946 Mitchell served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, commanding squadrons of torpedo boats. He received the Silver Star for his achievements. When he returned to his law firm in 1946, it was renamed Caldwell, Trimble, and Mitchell. He became known for his expertise in government funding for the construction of housing, colleges, and hospitals. In December 1957 he divorced his first wife, Elizabeth Katherine Shine, with whom he had two children. Later that month he married Martha Beall Jennings, and they later had one daughter.

Mitchell's steadiness and his skill at organization gave him a solid career in government law, and through the 1960s, he might have been remembered best for helping create low-income housing throughout the country. In his private life, he seems to have been a relaxed husband who enjoyed his wife's outspoken behavior. But both his law practice and his marriage were shaken when his law firm merged with another and became Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander, and Mitchell. Former vice president Richard Nixon's office was next to Mitchell's, and they consulted with one another often.

In 1968 Mitchell helped draft the Housing and Urban Development Act. By then, he had become close friends with Nixon, but when Nixon asked him to become campaign manager for his second run for the presidency, Mitchell demurred. He was a private man and disliked being in the public eye. Eventually Nixon prevailed, and Mitchell brought organization to a campaign staff that was in disarray. Although some staff members complained that Mitchell was inflexible, Nixon gave him a free hand in running the campaign. He developed the "southern strategy" that helped Nixon win the presidency by a narrow margin over Hubert Humphrey.

Nixon then asked Mitchell to serve as U.S. attorney general. He did not want the job but yielded to Nixon's persuasion. When he took office on 22 January 1969 he said, "I am first and foremost a law enforcement officer." Nixon had emphasized that Mitchell's primary task would be to fight crime. He moved into a Watergate apartment, which was said to be grandly appointed. In 1969 he helped write anticrime bills, and he had wiretaps placed on mobsters. He believed he was implementing the actions that Nixon wanted him to take, but many of his espionage techniques were eventually ruled illegal in the 1970s. For example, in United States v. U.S. District Court, the Supreme Court in June 1972 ruled that the government cannot place a wiretap on anyone other than foreign espionage agents.

During 1970, leaks of White House discussions to the press angered Nixon. Mitchell had wiretaps placed on at least thirteen staffers for the National Security Council to find out who was leaking information about the Vietnam War. In addition, he filed suit to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers that Daniel Ellsberg had leaked. In 1971, in the case of New York Times v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled against him, allowing the Pentagon Papers to be published. In his effort to end violent demonstrations on college campuses and on public property, Mitchell authorized mass arrests of demonstrators. In the case of a May 1971 antiwar march in Washington, D.C., about 13,400 people were arrested, though they were never successfully prosecuted.

Nixon was up for reelection in 1972, and he wanted his friend to run the campaign. Mitchell resigned as attorney general on 15 February 1972 to take over Nixon's reelection campaign. The campaign was doing well until 16 June 1972, when an attempted break-in at the Democrats' office in the Watergate office building was discovered, resulting in the arrests of White House aides E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy. On 1 July 1972 Mitchell resigned as manager of Nixon's campaign, perhaps because he was dismayed by the break-in or perhaps because he was connected to it.

During 1973 Mitchell was under great stress as the conspiracy to cover up the details of the Watergate break-in was slowly revealed. It seemed as though the White House was working to convince people that Mitchell was the one responsible for ordering the break-in. In May 1973 a grand jury indicted Mitchell for obstruction of justice, perjury, and conspiracy. Besides that, his marriage was falling apart. In interviews she gave at the time, Martha Mitchell insisted that she knew her husband was conspiring in a cover-up, sometimes even holding conspiracy meetings in their own home. That and her husband's effort to have her discredited as mentally ill prompted their separation in 1973. By 1974 Martha Mitchell was telling anyone who would listen that her husband had conspired in the cover-up.

On 1 January 1975 Mitchell was convicted on all the counts in the indictment. His sentence was two-and-a-half to eight years in prison. In July 1975 he was disbarred. His appeals delayed his serving time in prison until June 1977. After nineteen months, he was paroled in January 1979. Thereafter, he sought to live in private and enjoy the company of his children. He died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C., on 9 November 1988 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Mitchell made a significant contribution to the 1960s by showing how public works could be safely and legally financed; his work facilitated the construction of urban low-income housing and helped financially restricted communities improve or build schools. As the U.S. attorney general, he was responsible for enlarging the scope of the Justice Department's powers, only to see those powers curtailed by congressional reforms during the 1970s.

Mitchell reportedly agreed to write an account of the Watergate scandal, but he apparently never did. His martyred wife Martha has been the subject of full-length biographies, but Mitchell has not. The entry on Mitchell in Current Biography Yearbook 1969 is noteworthy for describing Mitchell's achievements before the scandals of the Nixon administration. For his role in the Watergate scandal, see Richard Ben-Veniste and George Frampton, Stonewall: The Legal Case Against the Watergate Conspirators (1977) and Michael A. Genovese, The Nixon Presidency: Power and Politics in Turbulent Times (1990). Winzola McLendon's Martha: The Life of Martha Mitchell (1979) discusses Mitchell's second marriage. An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Nov. 1988).

Kirk H. Beetz

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John Newton Mitchell served as U.S. attorney general from 1969 to 1972. A key political adviser to President richard m. nixon, Mitchell was later convicted of crimes associated with the watergate scandal, becoming the first attorney general to serve time in a federal prison.

Mitchell was born September 5, 1913, in Detroit. He worked his way through Fordham University and Fordham Law School playing semiprofessional hockey. After graduating from law school in 1938, he was admitted to the New York bar and began work in a New York City law firm. He was made a partner in 1942. During world war ii, he served as a torpedo boat commander in the U.S. Navy.

Mitchell became rich and prominent as a municipal bond lawyer, devising new ways for states and municipalities to finance construction projects. He met Richard M. Nixon in 1962, when Nixon joined a prominent New York law firm. At that time Nixon appeared to have no political future; he had lost the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial election. In 1967 Mitchell's firm merged with Nixon's and the pair became confidants.

Mitchell served as Nixon's campaign manager for the presidency in 1968. He forged a conservative coalition of southern and western states that helped carry Nixon to victory over Vice President hubert h. humphrey. During the campaign Mitchell claimed he would never accept a cabinet position if Nixon was elected. Despite these statements Mitchell accepted the post of attorney general in 1969.

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

As attorney general, Mitchell led the justice department in a sweeping law-and-order drive that many critics believed went too far. He

increased the number of telephone wiretaps on private citizens and generally clamped down on political dissenters, especially those who opposed U.S. involvement in the vietnam war. A number of these Justice Department initiatives were later ruled illegal by the courts. For example, in Ellsberg v. Mitchell, 353 F. Supp. 515 (D.D.C. 1973), the department sought to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg for leaking secret documents to the press regarding military involvement in Vietnam. The release of the Pentagon Papers infuriated the Nixon White House. The case was dismissed after Ellsberg's attorneys informed the court that a secret White House security group (the "plumbers") had illegally

broken into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of damaging evidence. The dismissal was also based on the Justice Department's refusal to produce wiretap records pertaining to Ellsberg.

Mitchell resigned as attorney general in February 1972 to head President Nixon's reelection committee. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested after breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C. They and two other men associated with the White House and the reelection committee were charged with burglary and wiretapping. Mitchell denied playing any part in the Watergate incident but resigned from the reelection committee post in July.

In May 1973 he was indicted in New York City for perjury and obstruction of justice in an alleged scheme to secretly contribute cash to the Nixon reelection campaign. He was acquitted of the charge in 1974. In that same year, however, he was indicted for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, giving false testimony to a grand jury, and perjury, for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He was convicted of these charges in 1975 and sentenced to two-and-a-half to eight years in prison. After exhausting his criminal appeals, he entered federal prison in June 1977. His sentence was later reduced to one to four years after he made a statement of contrition. He was paroled in January 1978.

His criminal convictions led to his disbarment in 1975. Following his release he served as an international business consultant. He died on November 9, 1988, in Washington, D.C.

further readings

Justice Department. 1985. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1985. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.