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John Newton Mitchell (September 15, 1913–November 9, 1988) was United States Attorney General under President Richard M. Nixon. He also served as Nixon's campaign manager in 1968 and in 1972. Due to his role as director for the Committee to Re-elect the President, which engineered the Watergate first break-in, he became the only Attorney General ever to be convicted of illegal activities.


Early life

Mitchell was born in Detroit, Michiganmarker, and grew up on Long Islandmarker in New Yorkmarker. He earned his law degree from Fordham University School of Law and was admitted to the New York bar in 1938. He served for three years as a naval officer (Lieutenant, Junior Grade) during World War II where he was a PT boat commander; his duties included commanding John F. Kennedy's PT boat unit. He received two Purple Hearts for wounds in combat and the Silver Star.

Except for his period of military service, Mitchell practiced law in New York Citymarker from 1938 until 1968 and earned a reputation as a municipal bond lawyer.

New York government

Mitchell came up with the idea for a type of revenue bond called a “moral obligation bond" while serving as bond counsel to New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s. In an effort to get around the voter approval process for increasing state and municipal bond limits, Mitchell attached language to the offerings that indicated the state’s intent to meet bond payments even though it was not obligated to do so.. He didn't deny it when asked in an interview if the intent was to create a “form of political elitism that bypasses the voter’s right to a referendum or an initiative”.

Political career

Richard Nixon met John Mitchell when Mitchell's municipal bond law firm merged with Nixon Mudge Rose Guthrie & Alexander in 1967. The two men became friends, and in 1968, with considerable trepidation, Mitchell agreed to become Nixon's presidential campaign manager.

During his successful 1968 campaign, Nixon turned over the details of the day-to-day operations to Mitchell. Allegedly he also played a central role in covert attempts to sabotage the 1968 Paris Peace Accords which could have ended the Vietnam War. After he became president in January 1969, Nixon appointed Mitchell attorney general while making an unprecedented direct appeal to FBImarker Director J. Edgar Hoover that the usual background investigation not be conducted. Mitchell remained in office from 1969 until he resigned in 1972 to manage President Nixon's successful reelection campaign.

Will Wilson, a former conservative Democratic attorney general of Texasmarker who switched to the Republican Party to support Nixon, was named United States Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division. He served from 1969-1971. Wilson wrote the book A Fool For a Client, a study of the fall of President Nixon. Mitchell believed that the government's need for "law and order" justified restrictions on civil liberties. He advocated the use of wiretaps in national security cases without obtaining a court order (United States v. U.S. District Court) and the right of police to employ the preventive detention of criminal suspects. He brought conspiracy charges against critics of the Vietnam War, and demonstrated a reluctance to involve the Justice Departmentmarker in civil rights issues. "The Department of Justice is a law enforcement agency," he told reporters. "It is not the place to carry on a program aimed at curing the ills of society."

In 1972, when asked to comment about a forthcoming article that reported that he controlled a so-called political slush fund used for gathering intelligence on the Democrats, he famously uttered an implied threat to reporter Carl Bernstein: "Katie Graham's gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that's published."

Mitchell's name was mentioned in a deposition concerning Robert L. Vesco, an international financier who was a fugitive from a federal indictment. Mitchell and Nixon Finance Committee Chairman Maurice H. Stans were indicted in May 1973 on federal charges of obstructing an investigation of Vesco after he made a $200,000 contribution to the Nixon campaign. In April 1974 both men were acquitted in a New Yorkmarker federal district court.

On February 21, 1975, Mitchell was found guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury and sentenced to two and a half to eight years in prison for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up, which he dubbed the White House horrors. The sentence was later reduced to one to four years by United States district court Judge John J. Sirica. Mitchell served only 19 months of his sentence, at Maxwell Air Force Basemarker in Montgomerymarker, Alabamamarker, a minimum security prison, before being released on parole for medical reasons. Tape recordings made by President Nixon and the testimony of others involved confirmed that Mitchell had participated in meetings to plan the break-in of the Democratic Party's national headquarters in the Watergate Hotelmarker. In addition, he had met, on at least three occasions, with the president in an effort to cover up White Housemarker involvement after the burglars were discovered and arrested.


Around 5:00 PM on November 9, 1988, he collapsed from a heart attack on the sidewalk in front of 2812 N St., N.W., Georgetown, Washington, D.C.marker. That evening he died at George Washington University Hospitalmarker. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemeterymarker based both on his World War II Naval service and his former cabinet post of Attorney General.

In a column on Mitchell's death William Safire wrote, "His friend Richard Moore, in a eulogy, noted that near Mitchell's grave in Arlington National Cemeterymarker was the headstone of Colonel Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, a Medal of Honor recipient, who used to call Mitchell yearly to thank him for saving his life."

Martha Mitchell

Mitchell's second wife, Martha, became a controversial figure in her own right, gaining notoriety for her public pronouncements of her husband's innocence as the Watergate saga developed - even though their marriage had by that time broken down amid claims of her alcoholism and erratic behaviour.

Because of her colourful personality and personal history, Martha's protestations that the President and the entire US government were involved in a cover-up were generally considered at the time to be delusional, and medical opinion was satisfied that she was mentally ill. History however has proved that much of what she said was true. Her name has therefore been subsequently given to the phenomenon - now known as the Martha Mitchell effect - which refers to the misdiagnosis of delusions brought about by mental illness.

She died in 1976.



  • James Rosen, The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. New York: Doubleday, 2008. ISBN 0385508646; ISBN 978-0385508643.

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