the story behind the woman who anticipated the truth about the Watergate case, but was condemned to oblivion

The Martha Mitchell effect: the story behind the woman who anticipated the truth about the Watergate case, but was condemned to oblivion

The Martha Mitchell effect: the story behind the woman who anticipated the truth about the Watergate case, but was condemned to oblivion

“I am convinced that if it had not been for Martha, Watergate would not have happened.” Richard Nixon’s statement to journalist David Frost in the famous 1977 interview is one of the triggers for the short documentary released these days on Netflix as a reminder of the 50th anniversary of the political scandal that ended the Nixon presidency. The Martha Mitchell Effect collects not only the events of those years, but also the phenomenon that left the institutional and media treatment of the figure of Martha Mitchellwho was considered a political prisoner of that republican administration.

After the revelation of the espionage commanded by her husband, former Attorney General John Mitchell and then director of Nixon’s re-election campaign, Martha was locked in her house, spied on in her private conversations, branded as crazy and alcoholic by public opinion, in order to silence what he had to say about the assault on the Democratic committee committed on June 17, 1972. That phenomenon, today popularly branded as gas lightingconsists of making someone believe that the truth is a construction of their belief, and over time it showed that Martha Mitchell had been one of the characters silenced in those events that changed the history of the United States.

The investigation of the journalists of the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, revealed the explicit connections of the White House with the espionage in the Democratic caucus, and the subsequent accusation of John Mitchell for the alleged robbery in which the detainee James was involved. McCord, a bodyguard under the orders of the former attorney general, demonstrated the direct involvement of the president’s right-hand man. The uproar eroded the credibility of the Nixon administration and at the same time shattered the campaign’s foundation of law-and-order ideals. In this public course, the figure of Martha Mitchell functioned just as a color note: the extravagant wife of the prosecutor who walked through the media with striking hairstyles and outfits, said the wrong thing and had become too indiscreet with the insinuations about the Watergate scandal. She was never considered a key player in the discovery of the truth, nor a central player in the course of events. Her tragic death just a year after Nixon’s departure from power cemented the forgetting of her name. Martha Mitchell became one of the cursed characters in the Watergate story.

However, the documentary directed by Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy picks up the interest in the figure of Martha that appeared a few years ago, from the podcast Slow Burnproduced for Slate magazine by journalist Leon Neyfakh, in whose first episode entitled “Martha” he explored Mitchell’s complex involvement in the famous events of the early 1970s. Neyfakh’s discovery returns this year, the 50th anniversary of the assault on the Watergate complex in Washington that triggered the scandal, because it is the basis of the new Starz series, Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchell couple. In tune with that anniversary, the short Netflix documentary is just an appetizer of what it promises Gaslitbut it allows access to the images of that time, to understand the magnitude of the media exposure of Martha Mitchell, the discomfort that it generated in Washington at a time when wives should not be more than hosts of dinners and receptions, without interfering in the public affairs of their husbands.

Martha Mitchell, the wife of the former attorney general of the Nixon administration, was one of the key figures in the Watergate scandal.

Martha Mitchell, the wife of the former attorney general of the Nixon administration, was one of the key figures in the Watergate scandal.

Martha Mitchell, the wife of the former attorney general of the Nixon administration, was one of the key figures in the Watergate scandal.

In just 40 minutes, and under the guise of offering a possible definition of the “Martha Mitchell effect”, the documentary begins with the triumph of Richard Nixon in 1968, a time convulsed by the recent assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the resistance of the population to a war as prolonged as Vietnam and a state of restlessness and uncertainty regarding the future of the Cold War. John Mitchell had been a successful lawyer in New York, remarried to Martha Beall, turned attorney general overnight and one of the most powerful men in the United States. Coming from the state of Arkansas, Martha revealed herself as an attractive personality since her landing in the presidential circle of Washington, striking for her movement in the city, her close relationship with the press, and for her opinions on the most thorny issues.

For Nixon, whose motto shared with his collaborators had been “choose the right wife”, Martha was a tough nut to crack, a potential threat, an “unguided missile” as Mitchell himself came to call her. And that casual and extravagant attitude of hers led her to circumvent the protocols, enter the spaces prohibited for women until then, and launch the most controversial opinions. On one of the trips that she shared with the president and her entourage, she told one of the journalists that she did not want to answer questions about dinners and ceremonies, but about matters of importance. “What do you think about the war in Vietnam?” The reporter asked her then. “It sucks!” Martha answered and made it to the front page of all the newspapers.

The Mitchells’ marital relationship maintained a tense balance until 1972, when the prosecutor left his official position to once again fulfill the role of campaign manager, in this case for re-election. Martha joined that effort with impetus and dedication: she had her own office in the campaign committee, staff in charge, and commanded many of the initiatives that sought to secure Nixon a second term. By then the president was already recording all of his conversations in the White House, worried by the growing fear of having an infiltrated spy among his people. In conversations between Nixon and his chief of staff HR Haldeman, recorded between 1971 and 1973 and later declassified, Martha Mitchell’s name is mentioned more than a hundred times. Over and over again, the president expresses his concern about the figure of Martha, the danger of her statements, and the risk that she implies for his administration. Logically, his alarm was heightened after the arrest of five men for the raid on the Watergate complex, among whom was CIA agent James McCord, a former bodyguard for the Mitchell couple and head of security for the Republican campaign committee.

The Martha Mitchell effect, a documentary short released on Netflix, anticipates the character that will be the axis of the new series Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchell couple.

The Martha Mitchell effect, a documentary short released on Netflix, anticipates the character that will be the axis of the new series Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchell couple.

The Martha Mitchell effect, a documentary short released on Netflix, anticipates the character that will be the axis of the new series Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchell couple.

The news appeared in the newspapers and surprised the Mitchell couple campaigning in California. As soon as he received the news of McCord’s arrest, John Mitchell immediately returned to Washington. Martha was stranded on the West Coast, guarded by an FBI agent, and her anger at the abandonment of her husband and the discovery of the plot that until then had been hidden from her prompted her to make compromising calls to her friends from the press. From then on she began a systematic plan to prevent her from leaking any information, avoiding her connection with the outside world, sedating her for supposed nervous breakdowns, keeping her captive out of the public eye. Martha’s resistance became fierce from then on: she considered herself a political prisoner, she accused her husband of wanting to intern her and told anyone who wanted to listen that Nixon could not ignore the Watergate events. However, the government was effective in its strategy of distancing itself from the scandal, continued with the campaign and achieved the re-election of the president, leaving behind the bad experience. However, the truth would soon come to light.

The explosion of the Watergate case after the revelations of the Washington Post journalists coincided with the separation of the Mitchell couple and the version popular voice of the alleged madness of Martha. Despite this, the confirmation of the White House’s involvement in the espionage showed that Martha’s public statements were well founded. “Martha was right” could be read on the posters of several of her followers as soon as a public event appeared, confirming that what she declared since the arrest of McCord and her accomplices was not an invention of her fevered mind. The spiral of the scandal forced Nixon to resign and threatened John Mitchell with a sentence for conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice for more than 30 years, which was finally reduced to 19 months for health reasons. After his resignation, Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. From then on Martha began to reveal how she had been treated in the height of the scandal: she was drugged, handcuffed, kidnapped to keep her silent. “Will the country put itself in order now? Are we over Watergate yet?” a journalist asked him days after the fall of the president. “Hopefully we never get over it because, in a way, it was good that it happened. We teach politicians to be correct and not corrupt.”

One of the wreaths at Martha Mitchell's funeral confirms what was known then: that she had told the truth about the White House's involvement in the Watergate affair.

One of the wreaths at Martha Mitchell’s funeral confirms what was known then: that she had told the truth about the White House’s involvement in the Watergate affair.

One of the wreaths at Martha Mitchell’s funeral confirms what was known then: that she had told the truth about the White House’s involvement in the Watergate affair.

However, the name of Martha Mitchell was lost as an anecdote in the maelstrom of history. Decade after decade, the memory of her decisive action in revealing the truth was blurred. She continued to be branded as an alcoholic, ridiculous and unreliable because of her resistance to conforming to the canons of the time intended for the wives of politicians and because of her refusal to cover up for her. When her husband was sentenced, she even dared to let out a joke: “It could have been worse than going to jail, they could have forced me to go back to Martha.” The news was then reduced to a bedroom scandal between the prosecutor and his wife, a private event in which the Watergate case was just a flick. But time gave Martha her place, at her funeral a huge crown prayed: “Martha was right.” The recordings recorded in the Oval Office later confirmed the seriousness with which the president and his team had indeed feared Martha behind closed doors. And over the years, her character emerged after prejudice and antics to become a key figure in the announcement of the truth, the one that everyone had wanted to hide.

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