Unraveling the last of the Watergate scandal’s mysteries

Having been a colleague of James Rosen at Fox News for nearly 10 years, I am intimately aware of his wide-ranging interests, wit and talents as a television journalist, writer, cartoonist, Beatles aficionado, Watergate bibliophile, Tom Wolfe devotee, raconteur, humorist, Helen Thomas impersonator, and overall fine friend.

And, like anyone who has been fortunate enough to enter Rosen’s circle at any point over the past 20 years, although appreciating all the aforementioned, I regularly forgave him his obsessive “Rain Man” shtick whenever he would mention his “little side project” — writing a biography about former Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell.

It’s not that I didn’t believe him or doubted his skill at being able to pull it off. It’s just that it didn’t make any sense.

First, why would a young, cool, rising network news star spend thousands of hours and burn billions of brain cells dissecting the life and times of the taciturn, grandfatherly, pipe-smoking Mitchell, who seemed to me just another of the off-the-shelf, duplicitous crooks of the Nixon administration?

And secondly, why would someone who was just 4 years old when those “burglars” first tapped the phone lines at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate complex find the tale so compelling as to devote half his life to pursuing its mysteries — especially considering that dozens of fellow Watergate travelers had seemingly already trod the same ground?

Alas, The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate isn’t an autobiography of Rosen, so the answers to those questions must blow in the wind for a while, but what is absolutely rooted in terra firma is the fact that Rosen has not only succeeded in producing one of the best-footnoted books on the Watergate years, he has also performed the near-impossible by transforming the caricatured, black-and-white, one-dimensional stick figure Mitchell into a living, breathing, compelling soul whose life, though sufficiently flawed, is quite worthy of attention.

For complete Watergate junkies like myself, after the identity of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Deep Throat was revealed in 2005, the only big mysteries of the caper that continue to intrigue are: 1) Who really ordered the break-in in the first place? and 2) What, specifically, were those well-connected, wing-tipped thugs really looking for?

Not one to duck away from the high inside pitch, Rosen takes a direct whack at the mystery and, with some confidence, concludes that the entire black-bag, administration-tumbling bugging operation was probably ordered up by none other than baby-faced presidential adviser John Dean.

Not interested in gathering high-level secret Democratic plans for a fall election that was virtually impossible for Nixon to lose, Rosen argues, as ludicrous at it may seem, that Dean, not Mitchell, ordered the break-in to keep tabs on a call-girl ring operating out of the nearby Columbia Plaza Apartments and availed by the DNC.

It gets a little complicated here, but Rosen’s “call-girl” thesis is that Dean was ultimately seeking to protect his attractive, blond girlfriend-then-wife (well-known to television viewers of the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings) Maureen Dean, whom Rosen suggests had ties to the Columbia Plaza ring.

Rosen’s case is buttressed by personal interviews he conducted with ex-FBI Agent Alfred Baldwin, who actually monitored the tapped DNC phones and who, according to Rosen, told him that much of what he heard was sexual in nature. Rosen believes that Dean was in the unique position to know why the particular phone of a relatively low-level DNC staffer was one worth tapping.

Mystery solved or not, for me the most interesting sections of the book are when Rosen is deconstructing Strong Man Mitchell himself.

The highest-ranking American government official ever to serve time (19 months) in prison, Rosen slowly and methodically lays out how the former New York whiz kid bond lawyer, Nixon campaign manager (1968 and 1972) and attorney general (1969-1972) wound up in a federal slammer whose walls contained official documents signed by Mitchell himself.

Playing against type, Rosen, although acknowledging Mitchell’s guilt, also sympathetically portrays him as something of a victim, unaware of some of the antics of his campaign “subordinates” who very well may have been getting their true marching orders from higher up.

Rosen also singles out Jeb Magruder, who, at Mitchell’s expense, Rosen suggests told prosecutors exactly what they wanted to hear to minimize his own prison time.

Rosen also spends a fair amount of time documenting the distracting pressures Mitchell faced by way of the multiple bizarre episodes of his troubled wife Martha, who had a celebrated penchant for late-night phone calls to the press while under the influence.

Ultimately, however, Mitchell, the quintessential loyalist, and the closest thing to a friend that Nixon had in Washington, was probably undone because of that legendary loyalty — a virtue that was rarely repaid by Nixon, as indicated by any number of the now-released Nixon tapes that Rosen has plumbed and mastered.

In the end, Mitchell, who died on a Georgetown street in 1988, never wrote his own version of events, so he surely took some mysteries to the grave. Thankfully, now we have The Strong Man to fill the void, especially for a new generation of first-time Watergaters who might be looking to learn what that fuss was about all those years ago.