Martha Mitchell: Prisoner of the GOP

You know the story of Watergate. You know about the break-in, You know about the Washington Post, you know about not being a crook. But how much do you know about Martha Mitchell?

Largely disregarded in her own lifetime, it’s no wonder that Martha Mitchell has sunk even further in anonymity after her death. Most Americans today don’t know story of the first person to tell the world about Watergate—or the Republican officials who conspired to stop her. 

Martha Mitchell was already a prominent figure in 1970s Washington D.C. Her husband, John Mitchell, was appointed Richard Nixon’s Attorney General in 1968, which gave Martha a platform to be generally indiscreet upon. Her first brush with notoriety was in 1969, when she told a reporter that her husband had likened recent peace demonstrations to the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Knowing what we do about John Mitchell, that pretty much tracks, but neither he nor the president appreciated the comment. With that one remark Martha had made a name for herself in Washington: Martha “The Mouth” Mitchell.

It was Martha’s habit to have a nightcap and call reporters with information she had learned through eavesdropping or reading her husband’s papers. As delightful as this habit sounds, it rubbed many Nixon staffers the wrong way. Martha’s outspokenness made her famous in her own right; a Gallup poll in 1970 showed that 76% of Americans knew who she was and in November 1970 she made the cover of Time magazine. However, her fame would come back to bite her. People who knew who she was knew her to be outspoken, volatile, and fond of a drink—making it easier for the president and his staff to diminish her credibility. 

In 1972, Nixon selected John Mitchell to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President. This committee, of course, was extremely successful and furthered the careers of all of its members. 

A week before the 1972 burglary of the DNC headquarters, John and Martha Mitchell traveled to California for a series of fundraising events. While in California, John was notified about the break-in. He immediately denied CRP involvement and flew back to Washington to deal with the aftermath. Aware of Martha’s penchant for indiscretion, he encouraged her to remain in California for a vacation. The tip-off that this was not a normal vacation? John Mitchell enlisted former FBI agent Steve King to act as a bodyguard and gave him instructions to prevent Martha from reading the news or calling reporters while she was in California. 

However, Steve King was not particularly good at his job. The Monday after John had returned to Washington, Martha managed to get her hands on a copy of the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper listed the people arrested in the break-in, including James W. McCord. Martha immediately recognized McCord as the security director of the CRP, which disproved John Mitchell’s claims that the CRP was not involved in the break-in. Martha called her husband’s offices multiple times that night, but he refused to answer her. Martha warned his aides that her next call would be to the press. 

On the night of Thursday, June 22, Martha made a call to one of her favorite reporters, Helen Thomas of the United Press. Martha told Thomas that she wanted her husband to resign from the CRP and that she was considering leaving him. Before she could tell Thomas about McCord, however, the phone was forcibly taken out of Martha’s hand. Thomas reported that the last thing she had heard Martha say was “You just get away” before the phone was hung up. 

A virtual woman hunt began. First, Thomas called the hotel where Martha was staying. She was informed that Martha was “indisposed” and unable to come to the phone. Next, Thomas contacted John Mitchell, who apparently was available to speak to the press but not to his wife. John was pointedly nonchalant, saying “[Martha] gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts.”

Reporters across Washington made efforts to find Martha for an interview. After almost a week, crime reporter Marcia Kramer tracked her down at the Westchester Country Club in New York, and was shocked at what she found. Martha was “a beaten woman” with “incredible” bruises on her arms. A shaken Martha agreed to sit down for an interview. 

Mitchell told Kramer that while she was was on the phone with Helen Thomas, Steve King had entered her hotel room and pulled the phone cord out of the wall. Then he and four other bodyguards held her captive in the hotel room for the week following the Watergate burglary, refusing to let her leave her room for any reason. Her injuries were sustained when the men accosted her after an attempt to escape via the room’s balcony. After one too many escape attempts, President Nixon’s personal lawyer Herb Kalmbach, was called to the hotel to consult. He decided to summon a doctor who forcibly injected Mitchell with tranquilizers, an incident Which she said left her fearing for her life. 

After a week of being beaten and drugged, Martha was allowed to leave California and she left for New York. She gave several interviews about her experience, but because she gave her interviews to primarily female reporters, the story of her kidnapping and her knowledge of CRP conspiracy was relegated to human interest pages and “women’s sections”. She was further discredited by a campaign by Nixon aides to paint her as a drunk. Rumors were even spread that she had spent time in a psychiatric asylum. She was generally written off as delusional, despite the verity of her claims. 

Despite Martha’s candor about GOP corruption, she initially defended her husband. When the story of CRP involvement was broken by two male reporters at the Washington Post and John Mitchell’s guilt became clear, Martha adamantly maintained that he had been an unwitting party. However, in 1973, shortly after John’s resignation from the CRP, the couple separated permanently. Martha fell silent.

On January 1, 1975, John Mitchell was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy for his involvement in the Watergate burglary. He would go on to serve 19 months in federal prison, and he and Martha would never see each other again. 

In May 1976, Martha provided sworn testimony in connection with the Democratic Party’s civil suit against the CRP. Once one of the capital’s most prominent Republicans, Mitchell became an outspoken critic of corruption in the GOP—an act that drew the ire of many of her friends and family. 

On May 31, 1976, only a few weeks after testifying, Martha Mitchell died of multiple myeloma. She was 57 years old. An unnamed contributor sent a floral arrangement to her funeral bearing the words “Martha was right” spelled out in white chrysanthemums. 

When McCord was convicted in 1975, he admitted that Martha Mitchell had been (his words, not mine) “basically kidnapped”. In an interview with David Frost in 1977, former president Nixon claimed “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.” Unfortunately, this corroboration came too late. 

Today, Martha Mitchell is perhaps most famous for the Martha Mitchell effect, which refers to the phenomenon in which a psychiatrist mistakenly labels a patient’s actual experiences as delusional. Like many women before her and many women after, Martha Mitchell’s mistreatment was written off as hysteria and lunacy. If it hadn’t been, Americans might have known the true story of Watergate in a matter of weeks and we’d all have to put up with a lot fewer movies about the Washington Post.

On the five year anniversary of Martha Mitchell’s death, a bust was erected in her honor at the Pine Bluff Civic Center. The memorial is inscribed with the words “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”