When Mitchell Met Nixon (Book Excerpt)

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

In honor of the premiere of Gaslit, the Watergate-era drama starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as Martha and John Mitchell, enjoy an excerpt from Nixon in New York looking at the origins of what was, arguably a far more consequential relationship for John.

At first glance, John Newton Mitchell wasn’t an obvious choice for campaign manager. The bald-headed, gruff-mannered, perpetually pipe-smoking bond lawyer had never even worked on a political campaign before, let alone run one. Unlike many of Nixon’s political intimates, Mitchell had no longstanding relationship with the former vice president—they had met, briefly, during Nixon’s congressional days but didn’t get to know each other until after Nixon moved to New York.

It wasn’t even clear what Mitchell’s political ideology was, let alone whether it was consistent with Nixon’s. In a 1973 profile of Mitchell in the New York Post, one longtime associate couldn’t recall ever having a single political conversation with him. In fact, he could have easily gone to work for the Democrats. Mitchell’s former press secretary, Jack Landau, would reveal in 1993, five years after his old boss’s death, that Mitchell had been offered an interesting opportunity in 1960: helping run Jack Kennedy’s campaign. According to Landau, Bobby Kennedy had met with Mitchell and tried to convince his fellow future attorney general to join the team. Mitchell demurred, but years later, after everything that had happened with Nixon, he seemed to have second thoughts. “If I had it all over to do,” Mitchell said with a smile on his face, “I’d run Jack Kennedy’s campaign.”

Yet Mitchell quickly became the only choice for Nixon and his campaign staff. A look at Mitchell’s life and career made it understandable as to why Nixon and his staffers would see him as the ideal heavyweight and why Nixon would respect Mitchell enough to let him run the campaign. Like Nixon, who was a mere eight months his senior, Mitchell was a self-made man who was as out of place within the Eastern Establishment as Nixon. Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1913, Mitchell grew up in Long Island, New York. He earned his bachelor’s degree and his JD from Fordham University. After graduating from law school in 1938, he married his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth “Bette” Shine, with whom he had a daughter and a son.

During World War II, Mitchell served in the navy and, when it came to his war record, the evidence suggests that Mitchell was a different type of self-made man. As James Rosen revealed in The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate, Mitchell’s military exploits have been heavily exaggerated over the years, and in some cases, they were outright fiction. Mitchell, like JFK, commanded a PT Boat unit, although a popular misconception at the time (perpetuated by a September 1968 story in New York Times magazine) was that Mitchell had been Kennedy’s commanding officer. As Rosen found, there’s no evidence that Mitchell had any interaction with Kennedy during the war, let alone given him orders. In later years, Mitchell would claim that he had earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, although Rosen would find no evidence of any of those honors being bestowed upon Mitchell. “When you spill blood for America,” Mitchell once said, “that’s the highest sacrifice you can make.”

On the other hand, his record as a lawyer was indisputable. Mitchell may have been only eight months younger than Nixon, but when it came to experience on Wall Street, Mitchell had decades on him. While in law school, Mitchell had worked as an “office boy” with the Wall Street firm of Caldwell & Raymond. The firm, which specialized in state and local bonds, traced its history back to 1887 when James Caldwell set up his own practice in New York City. In 1938, six years before he would enlist in the navy, Mitchell officially joined the law firm as an associate. During that stretch of time, he became so successful and generated so much revenue for his firm that they put his name on the shingle within four years after he started practicing law—an unheard of feat on Wall Street. “We were getting all of the business from all over the country,” Mitchell said. “So Caldwell, one day, decided to give me a percentage of the retainer. And within a year I was making more money than all the other partners, so it was cheaper for them to make me a partner.” As he was living the high life, he decided to divorce his wife, Bette, and agreed to pay her 35 percent of his gross annual income even if she chose to remarry. Mitchell, himself, chose to remarry and didn’t waste much time. Eleven days after his divorce, there was a new Mrs. Mitchell: Martha Beall Mitchell, who would go onto become an extremely colorful— and controversial—figure during Watergate.

The secret of his success lay in his creativity. Even before he officially joined the firm as an associate, he found that Caldwell & Raymond’s lawyers were flummoxed by some of FDR’s New Deal policies especially his initiative to provide low-income housing to the poor. One of Mitchell’s first assignments was one that no one else at the firm wanted. Caldwell gave him a folder containing some paperwork for a bond program in Syracuse to fund low-income housing. “Take this damn fool New Deal idea and work it out,” he told Mitchell. Caldwell, like many of his fellow bond lawyers, saw very little money to be made in such bonds due to the fact that the rental income to be made off the properties would be so low.

However, Mitchell smelled an opportunity and came up with a proposal for a tax-exempt municipal housing bond. As his colleagues recognized, the bond, itself, was nothing new. Mitchell’s wrinkle was that the federal government would pledge its intention to repay the bond (even though it had no legal obligation to do so) and, as a sign of its commitment, back up each bond with monetary reserves. “In other words, this was not a guarantee by the government, but they would promise to make annual contributions,” William Madison, a former colleague and partner of Mitchell’s, told Rosen. “It was a—sort of like a gimmick.”

What Mitchell was really selling was security and peace of mind. “When the bonds were issued, you knew damn well that they were going to get paid, and of course, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s felt that way because they rated the bonds Triple-A,” Francis Maloney, another former partner of Mitchell’s, told Rosen. Mitchell generated so much business for his firm that he had clients coming to him even before he passed the bar. “They sold like hotcakes,” Mitchell later recalled.

He was also making himself indispensable to the state and local governments that wished to take advantage of these bonds. As Carl Person, a former Mudge associate who left the firm in 1963, pointed out, municipal bonds were highly attractive to state and local governments because they did not have to be registered as securities with the SEC under the Securities Act of 1933. Mitchell soon became their point man, researching existing statutes, codes, and constitutions of the various states where the bonds were to be issued and drafting bills for the legislatures to enact so that they could start issuing the bonds. He would also have his firm issue opinions vouching for the legality of the bonds. As a result, during the course of his work, he would travel extensively around the country, meeting with government officials and working closely with them. Before he knew it, he had built up an enviable network of governmental contacts throughout the country.

One of his biggest contacts happened to be Nixon’s biggest and longest-standing intraparty rival, Nelson Rockefeller. The two had worked together when Rockefeller was undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare during the Eisenhower Administration to finance the building and construction of schools throughout the country using a form of the “moral obligation bonds” that Mitchell had utilized for the Syracuse housing project. In 1960, with New York State facing a housing boom, now-governor Rockefeller turned to Mitchell and his moral obligation bonds to deal with the increase of going from building 90,000 units annually to 125,000. Acting on Mitchell’s suggestion, Rockefeller secured the creation of the New York State Housing Agency, a semiautonomous state agency that would underwrite the bonds to fund New York’s housing boom. Rockefeller loved the moral obligation bond because it enabled the state to raise money without having to submit the project for approval by voters via statewide referendum. Mitchell, when asked if moral obligation bonds undermined popular will, was honest: “That’s exactly the purpose of them!”

The moral obligation bond soon caught on with other state and municipal governments throughout the country, making Mitchell a wealthy, and politically well connected, man. His firm, now called Caldwell, Trimble & Mitchell, began handling similar bond issues in over forty states, including multiple projects in New Jersey and Florida. Mitchell’s legal work forced him to work with Republicans and Democrats alike, and he developed a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker. In a bit of hyperbole that was, nevertheless, easy to believe, BusinessWeek reported that Mitchell knew or had dealt with more governmental officials throughout the country than most professional politicians.

Several firms were itching to get on the municipal bond gravy train including Nixon Mudge. As Mitchell’s deals became more complicated, the bond underwriters began looking for their own counsel to advise them, and Nixon Mudge was one of the firms they turned to. “We spent quite a bit of time with Bob [Guthrie] and Dick Nixon,” Mitchell recalled. “Not so much with Dick on the business, but on the social side of it.” Meanwhile, some of Mitchell’s bond clients began asking him and his firm to handle some of their other legal work. In order to accommodate his clients, Mitchell would have to either expand the capabilities of his firm or look for a merger partner.

He decided to go with the latter. Caldwell, Trimble & Mitchell had no shortage of suitors, but Guthrie, who worked hard to recruit Mitchell into the Nixon Mudge fold, believed he had the inside track. As Martha Mitchell, John’s controversial wife, later put it: “My husband’s greatest desire was to build the biggest law firm in the country.” The merged firm, which became official in the beginning of January 1967, would boast thirty-three partners, putting it behind the likes of Sullivan & Cromwell, Shearman & Sterling, Davis Polk and Cravath. However, with 120 lawyers on staff, the proposed firm of Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Mitchell would be a force to be reckoned with on Wall Street.

There was, of course, another consideration for Mitchell. “John Mitchell, personally, wanted to be close to Richard Nixon,” said Evans. “That was a major motivator in his bringing his firm into [Mudge].” Garment agreed, writing that while he believed Mitchell when he said that he was joining Nixon Mudge in order to expand his practice, he assumed that Mitchell’s primary reason was to establish a relationship with the man who would be president. “I think he came primarily because of the larger possibilities of a political partnership with Richard Nixon, who he knew, from his life in the heart of American politics, had a substantial chance to become president,” noted Garment. “This prospect, I thought and still believe, was exciting to the publicly unexcitable John Mitchell.”

Guthrie, for his part, believed that Nixon was the deciding factor in getting Mitchell to sign on the dotted line. “He wanted prestige,” Guthrie said.