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John Mitchell, Key Watergate Figure, Dies at 75

November 10, 1988|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

WASHINGTON — John N. Mitchell, the only attorney general in the nation's history ever to serve a prison sentence, died Wednesday night of a heart attack, a hospital official said. He was 75.

Claudia Dominitz, a spokeswoman for George Washington University Hospital, said Mitchell died at 6:27 p.m.

Mitchell was apparently on the way to his home in the fashionable Georgetown section of Washington when he collapsed on the sidewalk.

Dominitz said Mitchell stopped breathing as he was being taken by ambulance to the hospital, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation had to be performed.

Mitchell, who once said all he ever wanted out of life was to be a "fat and prosperous Wall Street lawyer," was regarded as President Richard M. Nixon's closest Cabinet adviser.

But for crimes related to the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, he spent 19 months in prison, becoming the first attorney general to serve time behind bars.

Harry M. Daugherty, President Warren Harding's attorney general, was tried twice in the 1920s but acquitted of charges resulting from the Teapot Dome oil scandal.

Mitchell disputed the testimony of former White House aides Jeb Stuart Magruder and John W. Dean III before the Senate Watergate Committee that he had approved of plans for the break-in and arranged payment of hush money to those involved.

A Byzantine cover-up had begun after the burglary in an attempt to distance Nixon from the scandal. During the next two years, the scandal exploded with repeated revelations from congressional and legal investigations.

In the end, 25 people--including the pipe-smoking Mitchell--were jailed for Watergate crimes. Nixon resigned in disgrace on Aug. 9, 1974, and was pardoned a month later by President Gerald R. Ford.

Mitchell was indicted March 1, 1974, on one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, two counts of lying to a grand jury, one count of perjury, one count of lying to FBI agents and one count of obstruction of justice.

He was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, two counts of false testimony to a grand jury and one count of perjury. On June 22, 1977, he began serving a 2 1/2-to-8-year sentence at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

On his release from prison 19 months later, Mitchell gave a curt goodby to the news media covering the event:

"Henceforth, don't call me. I'll call you."

Mitchell spent the years after the release in the city of his downfall--working as a consultant for Global Research, Inc., a Washington think tank.

Born in Detroit on Sept. 15, 1913, Mitchell was a graduate of Fordham University Law School.

Mitchell, who specialized in municipal bonds, became acquainted with Nixon when the two were partners in the New York law firm of Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Mitchell.

He became Nixon's campaign manager in 1968 and worked to build a coalition of Southern and Western states by using a conservative appeal with "law and order" rhetoric.

During the campaign Mitchell said he would never accept a Cabinet position if Nixon were elected. After he was named attorney general, he said that he did not want the job and would only stay two years.

"I have everything I want," he once said. "I'm a fat and prosperous Wall Street lawyer, which is just what I've always wanted to be."

But once at the Justice Department, Mitchell stayed until 1972, when he left to manage Nixon's reelection campaign.

Mitchell and Nixon remained good friends throughout the scandal and afterward. Mitchell never uttered a harsh word about the President and never permitted his defense lawyers to do so during the lengthy trial.

He received $50,000 from publishers Simon & Schuster to write a book about his ordeal but was subsequently sued by that firm for failing to provide a satisfactory manuscript. The case was settled out of court.

The late Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.), who presided over the Senate Select Committee that investigated the scandal, once said: "I really feel sorry for John Mitchell. He was very loyal to the President, and the President was very loyal to him."

Mitchell's estranged wife Martha, who became the subject of nearly as much media attention as her husband, died in 1976. Mitchell leaves two children from a previous marriage.

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