Fifty years after the break-in and robbery of the Democratic national headquarters of Watergate, it is still considered one of the greatest political controversies of all time. But few remember one of its most shocking chapters: the story of whistleblower Martha Mitchell, who shared details of the scandal and paid a heavy price.
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The most talked about woman in Washington
Martha, a conservative and flamboyant socialite from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was the wife of John Mitchell, the attorney general and confidant of President Richard Nixon. In 1970, she was also one of America’s most famous women.
With her bouffant blonde and larger than life personality, Martha was so well known that she graced the November 1970 cover of Weather magazine, which reported that she “used to speak her mind on the spot” and was “a figure of ridicule for liberals and a public embarrassment for many traditionalist Republicans.” That same year, the New York Times called her “the most talked about and talkative woman in Washington.” His nickname in Washington was the “Mouth of the South”.
“She was this loud, brash, outspoken woman, an incredibly polarizing figure, at a time when most Cabinet wives were completely unknown,” says Garrett Graff, author of Watergate: a new story. “She was the most requested Republican speaker in the country next to the president himself.”
In addition to doing the rounds on talk shows, Martha was known to eavesdrop on her husband’s phone calls and meetings, much to the dismay of her husband and the Nixon administration. Adding to their anger, she often shared this sensitive information with reporters on nightly calls that were rumored to be fueled by her fondness for whiskey.
Martha Mitchell’s role in Watergate
On the weekend of June 17, 1972, Martha accompanied John, then head of Nixon’s re-election committee, to Newport Beach, California to attend campaign events. It was there that John received a call warning him that five men had been arrested at the Watergate complex – for the burglary he allegedly authorized.
John headed for Washington, leaving Martha at the hotel, apparently under the watch of security aide and former FBI agent Steve King. King was ordered to prevent Martha from learning about the break-in or from contacting the media. But Martha managed to read the news and see photos of one of the captured burglars, James McCord. Martha recognized McCord as he was a former CIA officer and re-election campaign security consultant who had recently served as Martha’s personal security guard.
Five days after the burglary, Martha called Helen Thomas, a United Press International reporter who wrote about the events in her book Front Row at the White House. As Thomas writes, Martha told him she would leave her husband if he didn’t get out of the “dirty business” of politics. Before Thomas could ask her more, she heard Mitchell say, “Go away.” Get away,” then the phone shut off.
Thomas called back but was told Martha was “indisposed”. Worried, Thomas wrote that she then called John who nonchalantly replied, “That little darling,” he said. “I love her so much. She’s a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what matters.
Martha later described to Thomas how King ripped the phone from the wall, threw her on the ground, and kicked her. She was held hostage at the hotel for days, according to Thomas, and at one point five men held Martha down while a doctor injected her with a tranquilizer. She also received stitches in her hand.
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She told Thomas upon his return to Washington, “I am black and blue. They don’t want me to talk.
But that didn’t stop her. Martha recounted her kidnapping ordeal to Thomas and other reporters.
“The story got a lot of play, mostly on the women’s pages,” Thomas wrote. “Maybe the editors thought this was just another case of Martha being Martha and newsworthy only because it revealed a rift in a very public marriage.”
The fallout from the scandal
Efforts to disparage Martha began right away, according to Thomas, who wrote that “Back in Washington, administrative assistants began implying that Martha was hallucinating, deranged, or just drunk. “.
“She was written off in part because of the misogyny at the time,” says Graff.
“Martha Mitchell despised feminists, but she was, in her own way, a feminist heroine, a woman who would not be bound by the conventional roles assigned to her, a woman who spoke her mind and was reduced to silence,” says Jefferson Morley, author of The Dance of the Scorpions: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate.
Despite what happened to him in California, Martha believed John was involved in no wrongdoing and defended him in a civil suit against Nixon’s committee to re-elect the president. But John, who left Martha in 1973, was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury, and spent 19 months in jail. Despite Martha’s best efforts to defend her husband, he told reporters, “It could have been a lot worse. They could have condemned me to spend the rest of my life with Martha.
McCord, who was later convicted as a Watergate conspirator, supported Martha’s story in a 1975 New York Times article. “Martha’s story is true – basically the woman was kidnapped,” he said, in an attempt to keep her in the dark about Watergate.
Nixon, who eventually resigned from the presidency in August 1974, later blamed Martha for Watergate. He told British interviewer David Frost: “I’m confident that if it hadn’t been for Martha – and God rest her soul, for she was a good person in her heart. She just had a mental and emotional problem that no one knew about. If it hadn’t been for Martha, there wouldn’t have been Watergate.
Just two years after Nixon’s resignation, Martha died of bone marrow cancer at the age of 57. In 2017, her story was detailed on the Slate Slow Burn podcast and later became the subject of the 2022 Starz TV series. Gas lighting.
“Martha has been shunned from history and forgotten for most of the last half century,” says Graff. “She warned America of what was about to envelop the country, and she was ignored. She deserves a much bigger role in how we tell the story of Watergate.
READ MORE: Watergate: who did what and where are they now?