Martha Mitchell: The Woman Who Knew Too Much About Watergate

By: Dave Roos  | 

Martha Mitchell
Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell, was a beloved figure of the Republican party. Until she wasn't. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Younger generations may not recognize her name, but in the early 1970s, Martha Mitchell was one of the most popular — and polarizing figures — in American politics. Martha was the wife of John Mitchell, President Richard Nixon's attorney general. But unlike other political wives who faded quietly into the background, Martha craved the spotlight and loved to talk.

If there was a Republican fundraiser in 1970, Martha Mitchell was usually the top-billed speaker. And if a newspaper reporter wanted a colorful quote about Nixon's Vietnam policy or his latest Supreme Court nominee, they knew who to call. In an age when politicians were more restrained in their public remarks, Martha had no filter.

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Who Was Martha Mitchell?

"She was this outspoken, loud, 'mouth of the South' from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who would go out there and say all of the things that Nixon wanted to say but couldn't because he was president," says Garrett Graff, author of "Watergate: A New History."

In many ways, Martha Mitchell was the first conservative political pundit in America, a forerunner of Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin, says Graff. And President Nixon was one of her biggest fans. "Right on, Martha! Give 'em hell," Nixon used to say when Martha tore into the Democrats.

But that all changed June 17, 1972, when police arrested five men who had broken into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. As Nixon and his inner circle noisily denied any connection to the Watergate burglary, they discovered that Martha held a key piece of information that could tie Nixon's reelection campaign to the crime.

Suddenly, the brash and outspoken Martha that Nixon loved was a liability. In a bizarre series of events that Martha later described as something out of "a James Bond novel," she was held against her will in a hotel and sedated with tranquilizers by an FBI agent. Then, when she tried to tell the press what had happened to her, Martha became the object of a smear campaign to discredit her as a mentally unstable "sick woman" and an alcoholic.

Her wild and ultimately tragic life story is the subject of a new Starz series called "Gaslit" starring Julia Roberts as Martha with Sean Penn playing her disloyal husband, John, the first and only U.S. attorney general to be sent to prison.

John Mitchell
(From left) Attorney General John Mitchell, President Richard Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and presidential adviser John Ehrlichman in May 1971.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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What Martha Knew

Martha and John Mitchell were in California attending Republican fundraisers with Gov. Ronald Reagan and John Wayne when the news broke of the Watergate burglary. John Mitchell had recently stepped down as attorney general to run Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign, known as Committee for the Re-election of the President (CRP or "CREEP" to Nixon's critics).

One of the five men arrested in the Watergate burglary was a guy named James McCord, who happened to be the security director for CRP. That drew immediate suspicion from the press, but John Mitchell was quick to dismiss the connection, saying that McCord had lots of other clients.

But McCord's name would have meant much more to Martha. When her husband stepped down as attorney general, she lost her Secret Service protection, so John hired McCord as Martha's personal bodyguard. If she saw McCord's name connected with the Watergate burglary, she would have known that her husband and CRP were involved in the break-in.

So John Mitchell didn't let that happen. He needed to keep the news of the Watergate break-in from his wife as long as possible, and above all, she couldn't be allowed to talk to the press.

Graff says that Martha was somewhat notorious for calling up newspaper reporters late at night, often after a few drinks, and offering up juicy bits of inside-the-beltway gossip.

"She would sit at home in the evening, drinking and eavesdropping on her husband's telephone calls," Graff says. "When he went off to bed, she got lonely and would call up reporters and dish to them about Nixon and Nixon's enemies. She was so well-sourced that she was usually right about things."

John worried that if Martha saw McCord's name in the paper, she wouldn't be able to contain herself, and anything she said to the press could implicate the campaign, Mitchell and potentially Nixon himself in the Watergate affair.

John jetted off to Washington leaving behind strict instructions that Martha should be isolated in her hotel room and not be allowed to make any phone calls to the press.

James W. McCord
James (John) McCord (center) was Martha Mitchell's former bodyguard. Her husband John Mitchell was afraid if she saw his name in the paper, she would connect the Nixon campaign to the Watergate break-in, which she did.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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Kidnapped and Tranquilized for Days

Here's where Martha's story takes a dark turn. Abandoned by her husband in the "care" of some stern-looking men in suits, including an ex-FBI agent, she still managed to get her hands on a newspaper. As John feared, Martha saw McCord's name and was shocked to see her former bodyguard involved in the Watergate break-in.

It's unclear whether Martha immediately made the connection between the burglary and Nixon's campaign, but she was clearly mad that her husband had tried to keep her in the dark and was frustrated to be holed up in the California hotel. Martha had to tell someone. So she dialed up one of her favorite reporters, Helen Thomas at United Press International (UPI).

According to Thomas, Martha started fuming about getting her husband out of politics when there was some kind of commotion on the phone when the line suddenly went dead. What actually happened was that one of Martha's handlers, the ex-FBI agent Steve King, had burst into the room and ripped Martha's telephone line out of the wall.

Then things got much worse. King and other security guards tackled Martha to the ground and forcibly injected her with tranquilizers. She was sedated for days as her husband and his cronies schemed 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers) away about how to deal with the unfolding Watergate crisis.

When Thomas couldn't reach Martha, she phoned John, who said, "That little sweetheart, I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me, and I love her and that's what counts."

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The Gaslighting Begins

When Martha was finally set free, she flew to New York and tried to tell the press what had happened to her. "I am a prisoner," she said, detailing the assault and forced sedation. "I won't stand for this dirty business." But instead of making front-page news, papers like The New York Times buried Martha's story on page 25 and made no mention of any connection to Watergate.

Meanwhile, on July 1, 1972, John Mitchell publicly resigned from Nixon's reelection campaign saying that he did it out of "love," to spend more time with his wife and daughter. People in the Nixon White House actively leaked that the real reason John quit was because Martha was an alcoholic and mentally unstable.

"They used her alleged 'instability' as cover to say that Mitchell was leaving the campaign to take care of his wife," Graff says. And if Martha tried to bring up her kidnapping in California, "they discredited her by saying that 'it's just Martha being Martha.' They were successful in writing her off."

Despite her mistreatment, Martha loyally defended her husband as the Watergate scandal unfolded. But that didn't save their marriage. John walked out on Martha and their daughter in 1973. He would eventually serve 19 months in prison for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice related to Watergate.

Martha remained in the public eye, but she was visibly shaken by the ordeal in California and was generally dismissed as a loose cannon and "hysterical" woman. When she called on Nixon to resign in 1973, the smear campaign against her only got worse.

John and Martha Mitchell
John Mitchell (right) eventually left Martha and allowed the smear campaign of her to continue with vengeance.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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The 'Martha Mitchell Effect'

Of course, Martha wasn't crazy at all. It's very likely that she knew from the start that her husband and Nixon were behind the Watergate break-in. If the world had listened to her when she first told her story about the California kidnapping, she might have exposed the plot much sooner.

But instead, Martha became a punchline of the Watergate era, cast as a boozed-up gossip hound instead of a political whistleblower. Not only was she a victim of gaslighting, she even earned her own psychological term, the Martha Mitchell effect, defined as "a misinterpretation of a person's justified belief as a delusion."

"A lot of this was the misogyny of the age," says Graff. "This was an era when women by and large were not considered serious contenders in the public space. And that allowed Martha Mitchell to be seen more as entertainment than as a serious political figure in her own right."

Sadly, Mitchell died of cancer in 1976, two years after Nixon's resignation.

In a 1977 interview, Nixon tried to drag Martha's name deeper into the mud, but ended up paying her a compliment. "I'm convinced if it hadn't been for Martha — and God rest her soul, because she in her heart was a good person," Nixon said. "She just had a mental and emotional problem that nobody knew about. If it hadn't been for Martha, there'd have been no Watergate."

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