John Newton Mitchell was the first United States Attorney General ever to be convicted of illegal activities and imprisoned. He also served as campaign director for the Committee to Re-elect the President, which engineered the Watergate first break-in and employed Watergate burglar James W. McCord, Jr. in a "security" capacity.
Mitchell was born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up on Long Island in New York. 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.
Except for his period of military service, Mitchell practiced law in New York City from 1938 until 1968 and earned a reputation as the nation's preeminent municipal bond lawyer.
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. Mitchell’s intent was to create a “form of political elitism that bypasses the voter’s right to a referendum or an initiative.”
Richard Nixon met John Mitchell when Mitchell's municipal bond law firm merged with Nixon Mudge Rose Guthrie & Alexander in 1967. Vice President Nixon had already lost to Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 and had been soundly defeated in the 1962 California gubernatorial contest. 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 the superbly organized Mitchell. After he became president in January 1969, Nixon appointed Mitchell attorney general while making an unprecedented direct appeal to FBI 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.
In the fall of 1968, 68 percent of black children in the South were attending all-black schools. By 1974, that number had fallen to 8 percent. This extraordinary accomplishment was achieved through the shrewd political skills and raw courage of President Nixon, Secretary of Labor George Schultz, and Attorney General John Mitchell.
Will Wilson, a former conservative Democratic attorney general of Texas who switched to the Republican Party to support Nixon, was named assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division. He served from 1969-1971. 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 Department 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."
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 York 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 Base in Montgomery, Alabama, 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 Hotel. In addition, he had met, on at least three occasions, with the president in an effort to cover up White House involvement after the burglars were discovered and arrested.
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.. That evening he died at George Washington University Hospital. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery based both on his World War II Naval service and his former cabinet post of Attorney General.