Reflections on Watergate: John Mitchell’s Death Mask

“His cheeks, colored by a network of ruptured blood vessels, were formed by a coalescence of hanging globules, beneath which the double fold of his chin melted into his neck. And his skull was strung with cords of fat.”


Dispossessed of his splendor and power, his authority dissipating in fidgets and sagging in pouches, his violence thwarted, John Mitchell appeared grunting before the Ervin Committee last week like an old wild boar finally brought to bay. Behind him lay four years of public rampage, of official trespass and violation, and despite his new misfortune, there still snarled ­in the pendant fatness of his face the image of that regime.

For Mitchell’s fading ferocity remained stamped upon him although most of what had once been his facial features were by now an extrapolation of pouches. His brow, arching uninterrupted into the top of his head, was distinguished from his pate only by the few lines low over his eyes. His cheeks, colored by a network of ruptured blood vessels, were formed by a coalescence of hanging globules, beneath which the double fold of his chin melted into his neck. And his skull was strung with cords of fat instead of muscle.

The over-all shape of his face, ­curving from the dome of his head to the dropsy of his throat, was that of a somewhat lumpy potato. At the forwardmost point of protuberance there jutted out a nose, which by virtue of its advanced position and uneroded aspect would become Mitchell’s favorite weapon during the first perilous day of testimony. When being asked an annoying question Mit­chell would sharpen his poniard by stroking its edge with a thumb and forefinger on either side. When being asked a damaging question he would strop his nose and simultaneously shake his head in frustration.

Between his nostrils and the thin line of his upper lip was a flat expanse of skin. This gap had the effect of dividing his mouth from the rest of his face and making it, even if its severity was retracting into puffs of flesh, his most prominent feature. Mitchell’s disappearing mouth had also been an imperious organ, and during his testimony one could almost see, as each dazed quivering of his lip resolved into a gruff sarcasm, the impotent brutality that would at­tend John Mitchell on his deathbed.

Yet despite the arrogance and cruelty he had wielded, an unlike­ly pathos had recently become at­tached to him after rumors of his solitary drinking and declining force had been insinuated into the national mood. Indeed, as he began to answer questions on Tuesday morning there developed a striking disparity between the intransigence of his testimony and the tenuousness of his physi­cal control. The transcripts will show that, not at all awed by the Senate, disdaining to invoke the Fifth Amendment for fear of the embarrassment that entailed, Mitchell reluctantly presented and painstakingly maintained a hopelessly improbable story. But if the record will indicate a tour de force of lawyerly dexterity, the telecast has already belied that image with a picture of an aging con twitching in discomfort.

When under Dash’s prodding Mitchell began his story, he seemed to be hung-over. His hands flopped around on his desk, his fingers vibrated, his lower lip fluttered, he stammered names and titles, and he became breathless at the end of long sentences, forcing the last traces of air from his lungs in order to finish. Soon his hands moved to his face as if trying to draw it out of its numbness. He rubbed his eyes, nose, and lips, he shook his head, and then he sat up from his chair and bounced his swollen body. The exercise seemed to work, and his words came more easily and started to slide into each other, for the sly massage had drawn last night’s whiskey into his arteries.

Now he was warming up and flexing, scratching himself like a caged gorilla groggy before breakfast. He scratched under his eyes, he scratched his nose, he scratched a blotch in the middle of his forehead, he scratched his teeth. The inquest was getting closer, more detailed, about the cover-up of the break-in and about Nixon’s role. Mitchell placed the forefinger of his left hand against his temple, in imitation of a man about to shoot himself. Next he covered his eyes with his hands, and then he came out of his palms smoothing his eyebrows. No, he repeated, he had protected the President by not telling him.

Mitchell returned from the luncheon break with a more liquid confidence that must have been nourished in martinis. Opening his mouth wider as he spoke and swiveling his head slowly from time to time in a prolonged sneer, he no longer needed to hide behind his fidgets. It became clear that he would add nothing to his original statement, that his embarrassment, except for conclusions that the committee might draw, had been fully aired.

Of the interrogators, Senator Talmadge, who had been best known on the committee for the size of his cigar, did succeed in upsetting Mitchell’s balance, and the former attorney general started to pull on his lips and shake his head. But Senator Gurney ended the day with one of the lowest episodes of the hearings, soothing Mitchell with soft slow questions, chuckling with him over his impossible replies, and then joining the witness in a gavotte for two eyeglasses, for which each dancer alternately took his glasses off, toyed with them, twirled them on a finger, and then replaced them on his nose.

As the hearings continued into Wednesday, Mitchell seemed to be revived by the boldness and ap­parent success of his challenge to the committee. His implausibi­lities stood uncorrected, and con­tradictions to his earlier deposi­tions remained unmentioned. Someone had probably warned him overnight that he had been fidgeting, because he now main­tained a correct posture similar to that so well assumed by John Dean. But while Mitchell had been steadily gaining assurance since Tuesday the public mood had been turning inexorably against him. The crowd could not sympathize with an enemy, how­ever broken from his power, who became emboldened by his own lies.

He was also displaying a rude ferocity in asides to an unappre­ciating audience. He joked about shooting people, throwing them out of windows, and military confrontations between Congress and the President. (One suddenly understood the administration’s hatred for demonstrators: the protesters had been the slovenly embodiment of its own fear and desire for overthrow. It now seemed inevitable that dread of lawless demonstrations had motivated the Watergate break-in and related illegalities, because the violent right had all along been united in temperament and intention with its half-imagined enemy.)

Only Senator Baker, whose slick manipulations to avoid offending anyone have lent an unexpected elegance to the hearings, managed to make Mitchell quiver on Wednesday morning. It was difficult to determine why the Senator’s innocuously abstract questions about the Presidency made Mitchell almost swallow his dentures, except that Baker had temporarily abandoned his Pretty Boy manner in favor of a serious and grown-up deportment. Baker was followed by soporific Senator Montoya, whose face was stamped in perpetuity with the scowl of a baby needing a diaper change. Although Montoya had had prepared for him a series of excellent questions, his drone al­most emptied the hall, while his misplaced emphases flopped in the air like a dead fish fibrillating in a basket. Mitchell ignored him.

Late Wednesday, after 10 hours of testimony, the committee at last began to confront its witness properly. It proved to be more dif­ficult than anticipated because Mitchell’s commanding personal­ity was being resurrected by its ordeal, and he was starting to become cocky in his defense. But Senator Weicker, improving on the scattershot methods of his earlier interrogations, pursued a detailed inquiry into Mitchell’s activities last summer. The next morning Sam Dash continued Weicker’s line of questioning, refined it, and made explicit the contradictions between what Mitchell was telling the committee, what other witnesses had asserted, and what he himself had sworn to last summer; much of Mitchell’s present testimony was discredited.

If the committee, having by this point lost much of its Tuesday audience, was hardly to be congratulated for its sense of timing, it had somehow done its job by presenting and exposing Mitchell. The Senators could not have expected to answer the critical question that remained: would Mitchell second his own story when Judge Sirica pronounced sentence? No one, not even the former attorney general, could claim to know. So the unrepentant witness merely retired to his whiskey and his remembrance while across town the President, who perhaps only now comprehended the power Mitchell would exercise over him, labored with every breath.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 19, 2019