John Mitchell* (on commies, subversives, birdwatchers)

* Look, there’s no law that says all quotes must be inspiring, wise, profound or witty. And no doubt, Mr. Mitchell was loved, and possessed many good qualities. Besides which, NINETEEN SEVENTY! And Communist bird watchers!

“The conservation movement is a breeding ground of Communists and other subversives. We intend to clean them out, even if it means rounding up every bird watcher in the country.”

John N. Mitchell (1913-1988) was most famous as Attorney General in Richard Nixon’s first term as President, as a central figure in the Watergate scandal that engulfed American political life, and, as the Washington Post pointed out in the first sentence of its obituary, “the only United States attorney general to serve a prison sentence”.

Perhaps, as delicious as this snippet is on its own, a little context is in order. My father-in-law is an avid birder, especially in his retirement from university professorship. This quote was passed on by him, and is included in the hallowed halls of Wikiquote. The statement, though, from 1970, comes not from some secret recorded conversation or high-security cabinet briefing note. It was in LIFE magazine, the April 24 issue of that general-interest, photo-heavy publication. It cost 50 cents. The cover story was about Jim Lovell, the Apollo 13 astronaut, and his family, and there were major features on the private life of Adolf Hitler (with not-previously-seen photos), the break-up of the Beatles, and the first celebration of Earth Day. These and others, of course, were right alongside fascinating retro ads (“Come to where the flavor is. Come to Marlboro country!” and “The New Money: the American express credit card“). 44 years ago, the ads — are you surprised? — were for cars (the styles are amusing), cigarettes (nobody thought twice about lighting up), appliances (so many happy Moms with high-piled hair) and booze (the ads look relatively modern; booze springs eternal!).

While earnest young people with horn-rimmed glasses and sideburns were advocating for greater environmental consciousness by commemorating Earth Day, there were also activists doing Un-American Things on the ecological front, speaking of context for Mr. Mitchell. Here’s a snippet from that LIFE issue on an early eco-demonstration:

ZANESVILLE, April 8: Two dozen members of Students Organized for Radical Ecology (SORE) staged a dump-in yesterday at the regional office of the National Refractory & Brake Company in downtown Zanesville….They deposited what police described as “a large quantity” of used beer cans and non-returnable soft drink bottles at the main entrance….”We were making  a symbolic protest,” explained Mike Bottomley, a bearded 20-year-old junior, “against the verbal garbage of Vice-President McGruder’s statement to the press. We think one load of garbage deserves another, and we will dump rotten garbage on the rotten Establishment until the whole rotten society blows up…” Young Bottomley spoke to reporters from his cell at Muskingum County Jail…

Then, following shortly after in the news-brief section of LIFE, came this report:

WASHINGTON, April 9: The Justice Department announced today that it would begin the systematic fingerprinting, photographing and urinalysis of “all persons connected with the forces of conservation and environmental protection”. 

Attorney General John N. Mitchell said that “the violent incident of dumping on the property of a great American corporation proves that the conservation movement is a breeding ground of Communists…. [and you remember the rest from above]

Mr. Mitchell labelled it “unfortunate” that “many innocent people would have to be investigated just because of the actions of a handful of young punks. But,” he pointed out, “that’s democracy”.

There’s so much to say here, but I’ll leave it to you. My favourite phrases, in no particular order: “a great American corporation”; “the forces of conservation”; “a bearded 20-year-old”; “the rotten Establishment”, “that’s democracy” and every word of the big, bold Mitchell proclamation above.

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