June 1972 marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal, in which then President Richard Nixon and his coterie were caught for their involvement in the illegal surveillance of political rivals. On this day, an alert security guard foiled a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Building, that led to the exposure of shocking abuse of power by the president and his inner circle.
It has been fifty years, but the scandal remains in public memory, thanks to the many films—All The President’s Men (1976) by Alan J. Pakula being the most famous—books, documentaries, podcasts about a dark chapter in America’s history.
Over the years, many of those who were part of that shameful episode, wrote their memoirs, and now that there is renewed interest in Watergate, because of the fifty-year milestone, names of the forgotten foot soldiers are coming up. As it always happens, the woman who triggered the chain of events that caused the Watergate exposé was overlooked—perhaps because she died soon after the story broke. However, a web series, Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and a documentary, The Martha Mitchell Effect, have given the recognition due to her, and she is being viewed, in retrospect, as a courageous patriot, not an “unguided missile” as her husband called her.
Interestingly, psychologist Brendan Maher, named after her, The Martha Mitchell Effect, that is the situation in which medical or mental health professionals disbelieve and label as delusional a patient’s statement of the truth.
Martha was the wife of John Mitchell, the US Attorney General in the Nixon administration, a stylish and articulate woman, who used her position in the Washington political hierarchy to achieve a kind of celebrity by cultivating the media. She gave interviews to magazines, appeared on television and said what she pleased—earning the label of “Mouth From The South,” and getting her banned from Air Force One, the President’s plane. She was known to make midnight calls to her media pals, and fill them in with the latest gossip, a lot of which she heard by eavesdropping on her husband’s conversations.
Still, she was popular in society and had a happy marriage, till her husband got embroiled in that sordid plot and the ill-advised cover-up. Then, the lives of the Mitchell family –the couple and their daughter, Marty—unravelled. When she found out something fishy was going on, she tried to reach her journalist friend and later, biographer, Winzola McLendon. She was imprisoned in her hotel room in California, drugged and beaten by her husband’s henchman, and the phone yanked from the socket. (Steve King, the man who did this kept moving up the ladder, and went on to become Donald Trump’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic.)
When she tried to raise her voice, her own husband dismissed her as a pill-popping alcoholic, and turned their daughter against her. When she mustered up the courage to testify against the president, her mental health issues were dragged out to humiliate her in the eyes of the public.
Kellie B. Gormly wrote in the smithsonianmag.com, “An outspoken conservative of the 1970s, Martha Mitchell was characterized as a brash, crazy drunk with a wild imagination. And when she claimed in June 1972 that one of President Richard Nixon’s cronies abducted, drugged and beat her, few recognized that her whistle-blowing on these “dirty tricks” was just a taste of the Watergate scandal to come.”
Later, Nixon admitted that if it wasn’t for Martha Mitchell, Watergate would never have happened. She was, however, barely a footnote when the Watergate story was told, many times over, from various points of view.
The executive producer of Gaslit, Sam Esmail, said to Margy Rochlin in an interview in The LA Times, “It’s been 50 years. How has this person not been explored? Lots of other people got credit for breaking the Watergate scandal open, most of them men. The fact that Martha, who was such an integral player in all of this, was silenced by her husband, the media, the press and obviously, people in power? To me, it was so relevant to what we’re experiencing today.”
Robbie Pickering, creator of the series that redeems Martha Mitchell, even if it’s after half a century, said, “Martha was always [portrayed as] a tangential character. Everybody dismissed her, even the good historians.She was a hero, a complex one, but a hero…Martha was a mess, but Richard Nixon was the biggest alcoholic of them all, and John Mitchell was addicted to pills and all that. But it’s so much easier to demagogue a complex woman than it is a man. And despite being an alcoholic, despite being a pill popper, she was the first one who told the truth. And I hope people really relate to her.”
Even McLendon, who was close to Martha, and witness to a lot of traumatic scenes in her life, did not quite believe her, perhaps because she also belonged to a time and culture in which women were not supposed to break their silence.
Garret Graff, author of the new book, Watergate: A New History says, “After her death, she was largely consigned to a footnote in the Nixon years and the administration. It’s really only within these last five to seven years that she’s been resurrected and sort of re-centered in the telling of the Watergate story and that she was a very central figure of the Nixon White House, both on its way up and on its way down….The tragedy of Martha Mitchell post-burglary is that she’s just seen as a joke. Her warnings about Nixon’s treachery and her stories of her own mistreatment are seen as coming from a kook. The shame and sadness of her story looking back is that she just wasn’t taken seriously in that final chapter, because Washington had gotten so used to her as a punchline pre-Watergate that that was the lens through which she was viewed after Watergate.”
It took fifty years, but today, she is called ‘The Cassandra Of Watergate,’ because she was right on all counts. She is just one of the many whistleblowers who said she wanted to teach “the politicians to be straight not crooked,” and like her, so many of the others have been ignored by history too. Maybe it’s time to set the record straight… starting with the tragedy and eventual triumph of Martha Mitchell.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated June 17, 2022)