John Dean doesn’t recall the exact date more than 50 years ago when he first met Martha Mitchell, but he remembers his impressions.
“The Attorney General [John Mitchell] used to have lunches every Wednesday for the senior staff, which I was a part of. He’d have them in his large conference room at the Department of Justice. And often Martha would attend those,” recalls Dean, the former White House Counsel under President Nixon, and a key figure in the Watergate coverup. “She was always a bright light in any room she walked into. She was vivacious, she was smart.”
There was a time, even before she became a kind of Watergate whistleblower, when seemingly all of America knew Martha Mitchell. The Arkansas charmer with the bulletproof beehive hairdo captivated the public with her remarkably outspoken manner. But that very quality, refusing to hold her tongue, would bring severe consequences, a story that unfolds in the Oscar-nominated documentary short The Martha Mitchell Effect.
“We thought this is truly a hidden figure in history, and there’s never been a documentary about her,” says Anne Alvergue, who directed the Netflix film with Debra McClutchy. “We were, at the time, on the heels of Trump and two impeachments and the MeToo movement. We thought it was a perfect time to tell her story, exhume her story.”
The directors do that with the aid of people who crossed paths with Mitchell, including Sally Quinn and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, journalist Connie Chung, former Nixon deputy assistant Dwight Chapin, and Dean, who knew her from the inner sanctum of the West Wing. Dean says Nixon and all the president’s men initially viewed Martha with amusement.
“I think they all thought it was kind of fun when she first surfaced. And the press was so attracted to her because she was a story, she was a great story. She wasn’t the Washington norm,” Dean tells Deadline. “She wasn’t the quiet cabinet wife in the corner, but rather this very outspoken character who was the belle of every ball.”
Mitchell appeared on Dinah Shore and Merv Griffin’s talks shows, among others, and even lampooned herself on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in a bit with Lily Tomlin as nosy telephone operator Ernestine. Of presumably greater concern to the White House, Martha displayed a propensity to call up reporters and share her unvarnished opinions, most notably with the UPI’s Helen Thomas. She did not stick to an approved script.
“She’s always a pain in the ass,” Nixon griped in a phone conversation captured on his secret White House recording system. “It scares me. I just can’t stand it.”
Dean remembers the shifting attitude toward Mitchell by the president and those around him.
“What happened was that Nixon’s relationship with Martha evolved,” he observes. “When Watergate occurred, it took a darker turn.”
Watergate. Martha Mitchell’s name forever will be linked to the scandal that brought down Nixon. But Dean, who shared his knowledge of the coverup with investigators and struck a plea deal over his Watergate role, questions how much damning inside information she truly possessed.
“I don’t know how much Martha knew or didn’t know. I suspect very little,” Dean says, “because John Mitchell was always rather guarded when talking about any of these sensitive issues around her. I was told by [former Nixon aide] Fred LaRue, who was very close to Martha at one point, that when you call John, if you call him at home, be assured that Martha’s likely to pick up an extension phone and listen in.”
Ironically, the Mitchells lived in the Watergate building. What is undisputed is this: On the night of the break-in – June 17, 1972 – when burglars were caught inside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, Martha and John were on the West Coast attending a Nixon fundraiser. After learning of the arrests, John Mitchell immediately returned to Washington but left his wife behind in California, allegedly telling security staff to keep her away from newspapers with accounts of the break-in.
Martha eventually rang up Thomas and told the UPI reporter she was being held prisoner by her husband’s henchmen. The phone went dead — Mitchell later said guards had ripped the apparatus out of the wall. She said a doctor summoned to her room knocked her out with a sedative. (Dean believes there’s more to the story, telling Deadline, “What I understood from the contemporaneous [accounts] was that she had put her fist through a window, and she was just out of control. And so that’s why they gave her the shot was to calm her down. She was upset that John had left.”).
Mitchell talked widely with reporters about her alleged imprisonment ordeal and went much further – becoming arguably the first prominent Republican to accuse the administration of complicity in Watergate. The documentary — with evidence culled from the White House tapes – makes the case that Nixon and his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman responded by plotting to ruin Martha Mitchell’s credibility. The media, fed stories by the White House, portrayed her as mentally unstable and a drunk.
“It’s important to hear Martha’s tale and what happened to her and the gaslighting campaign that was leveraged against her,” McClutchy says. “I think it provides a fuller picture of history and reflects on what has been happening since then, but also very recently in the history of politics and the gaslighting campaigns against women specifically.”
In a clip film from Nixon’s famed interview with David Frost, the disgraced former leader says, “I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate.”
“One of the things that was very prevalent in that White House is finding scapegoats,” Dean comments. “No one takes responsibility, always. It’s always somebody else’s fault. So, blame it on Martha. I think there’s a lot of that that ran through Nixon’s analysis.” He breaks down Nixon’s self-justification this way, imagining him thinking: “‘Well, I wouldn’t hire or have relied on somebody so stupid as to, one, break into the Watergate or, two, not effectively cover it up, so let’s just blame it on Martha.’”
About one thing there can be little doubt — that she became collateral damage in the Watergate scandal, her reputation trashed, her relationship with her husband destroyed. John Mitchell was sentenced to prison for his role in Watergate in 1977; a year before, Martha Mitchell died of cancer at the age of 57.
“That’s one of the things that the documentary does a nice job of explaining, that here’s this larger than life character,” Dean says, “who influences history because of her position, her husband’s position, and her lack of tolerance for political shenanigans… The documentary sort of shows that — how somebody who wants to speak out and tell the truth, it’s pretty hard to suppress her.”
He adds, “I’ve been enthusiastic about the documentary because I think the producers behind it have told a story that needed to be told.”
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