I’m going to start with a story that you’ve probably never heard. It takes place in June of 1972, just a few days after five men broke into the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C.
It’s a story about a woman named Martha Mitchell who was, at the time, very famous—and whose life was destroyed in large part because of her proximity to the Watergate conspiracy. Martha’s husband worked in politics. His name was John Mitchell, and in June of 1972 he was in charge of the Committee to Re-Elect President Richard Nixon. Before that, Mitchell had an even bigger job: He was the attorney general of the United States. Nixon called John Mitchell his “most trusted friend and adviser.” Others simply called him “Deputy President.”
Historians disagree on what exactly Martha really knew about Watergate. But in the aftermath of the burglary, she was treated by Nixon’s men as someone who knew too much.
Martha Mitchell: That was the beginning of my being held a prisoner.
Later, Martha would tell David Frost of the BBC everything that happened to her that weekend.
David Frost: You really were held—?
Mitchell: Literally held a prisoner within four walls …
First she was kept against her will in a California hotel for days. Then she was forcibly tranquilized while being held down in her bed. Later, when she went public, Nixon loyalists tried to discredit her in the press as an unreliable alcoholic. They said she was crazy, and to be fair, she must have seemed crazy. But it turned out she was onto something—something very big.
This is Slow Burn, a podcast about Watergate. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh. And over the next two months, I will be your guide to everything you never knew about the greatest American political scandal of the 20th century. What was it like to experience it in real time? And how did it feel to wake up every morning wondering what was going to happen next?
Episode 1: Martha
Martha Mitchell, in the early 1970s, was a bona fide celebrity. She was glamorous and outspoken—a high-energy Southern belle from Arkansas. She was in her 50s but she was girlish. She wore long, dangly earrings and kept her bright blond hair in a beehive. She had a reputation for loving fun, for drinking a little too much, and also talking a little too much.
Reporter: Martha Mitchell has been on the phone again to the Washington Star-News and to UPI. She told the Star-News she was going to leave her husband …
Mitchell: Well, I just don’t sit around and do nothing, I guess. I’m a doer, I’m always up to something. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad, but I’m always up to something.
Martha was not a typical Cabinet wife. In 1970, the New York Times called her “the most talked about, talkative woman in Washington.” She appeared on TV a lot, and in those appearances she came off as zany and friendly, even though she was always going on about how much she hated liberals. She was funny about it, though, sort of like a ferociously anti-communist Lucille Ball. J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious FBI director, once said, “She is one of the most lovable girls I have ever met. She says what she thinks and lets the chips fall where they may.”
Martha’s garrulousness routinely caused headaches for the administration. One time she personally called the wives of a bunch of senators and demanded that their husbands commit to supporting one of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees. To give you a sense of how disruptive this kind of thing could be, Richard Nixon himself once told his chief of staff in a meeting, “We have to turn off Martha.”
Being a gossip was central to Martha’s image. Her nickname was “The Mouth of the South,” and often, during public appearances, she’d get razzed for it like it was her defining foible. Here’s a clip from the popular NBC comedy show Laugh-In:
Lily Tomlin: Oh, I’m gracious, good afternoon. Is this the party to whom I am speaking?
Mitchell: Yes, this is Martha Mitchell.
Here, Lily Tomlin plays a telephone operator calling the real-life Martha to present her with an award for giving the phone company so much business.
Tomlin: Well Mrs. Mitchell, we have voted you the person who has done the most for Ma Bell, and your prize is a telephone in the shape of the Supreme Court.
Mitchell: Well that will make hanging it up a real pleasure!
There was no one Martha Mitchell liked talking to on the phone more than journalists. The line on her was that she would drink, call one of her reporter friends late at night, talk to them for hours, and then get quoted in the paper.
And she didn’t just talk—she also listened. According to her biography, she would routinely eavesdrop on her husband’s phone calls, rifle through his drawers, and sometimes even listen in on secret meetings that he had with other Nixon associates in their apartment. Whenever she got caught, her husband would send her up to her room, at which point she would creep halfway down the stairs and continue listening from the landing.
So what was John Mitchell doing in these secret meetings? Well, broadly speaking, he was scheming against the Democrats on behalf of Richard Nixon. As the Washington Post reported a few months after the Watergate break-in, Mitchell controlled a slush fund that was used to pay for clandestine political operations: spying, sabotage, you name it. He ended up going to prison for conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury. If you’ve seen All the President’s Men, you probably remember him threatening Carl Bernstein, saying that if the story he’d written with Bob Woodward about the slush fund ran in the paper, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham was “gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer.” That’s a direct quote, by the way.
So imagine you’re John Mitchell. You’re the president’s closest confidant, and you’re in charge of all kinds of political skullduggery. Meanwhile, your wife is famous for listening in on your meetings, getting hammered on whiskey, and blabbing to reporters.
Now, here’s what happened during that fateful June weekend in 1972 that sparked the undoing of Richard Nixon’s presidency, ended John Mitchell’s career, and ruined Martha Mitchell’s life.
John and Martha Mitchell had come to California accompanied by a troupe of Nixon aides. John was there to do campaign work, and Martha—always a popular guest at Republican fundraisers—was looking forward to a pool party at a Nixon donor’s house, where she would get to rub elbows with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
At some point John Mitchell got word that five burglars had been arrested at the Watergate complex in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
Reporter 1: While trying to install eavesdropping equipment …
Reporter 2: The burglars broke through a fire escape door that led to the Committee’s offices.
The men were wearing suits, carrying cameras and radio equipment and large amounts of cash.
Reporter: They’re obviously trying to bug the Democrats’ office.
Upon hearing the news, John Mitchell told his wife that he had to go back to Washington right away. He didn’t tell her why, and he suggested that she stay behind in California to get some rest. Presumably he didn’t want his nosy loose-lipped wife around while he and the president began planning their cover-up.
There was a problem, though: Martha knew one of the burglars who was arrested that weekend. In fact, she knew the most important one.
Reporter: This is a police photograph of James W. McCord. …
James McCord was a former CIA officer.
Reporter: And guess what else he is? A consultant of President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign committee, hired to install its security system.
Martha knew McCord because he’d worked as her personal security guard in the spring of ’72. Martha and John Mitchell had a young daughter, Marty, and James McCord had driven Marty to and from school. Though she would later deny it, Martha reportedly liked McCord and trusted him, and of course she knew exactly how closely he worked with her husband.
For that reason, John Mitchell didn’t want his wife to find out that McCord was involved in the burglary. Who knew how she would react, what questions she would ask, or who she would try to talk to about McCord’s involvement with the committee? So when he left for D.C., John Mitchell put a former FBI agent named Steve King in charge of Martha, and he told him to keep her away from newspapers, TV news—any coverage of the burglary.
But on Monday morning, just two days after the break-in, Martha got her hands on a copy of the Los Angeles Times. On the front page was a mug shot of McCord, alongside an article laying out the basic facts of the Watergate break-in.
In the article, Martha’s husband was quoted saying that McCord wasn’t really a member of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, which came to be known eventually by the cheeky acronym CREEP.
Reporter: John Mitchell said McCord and the others were neither acting on behalf of the campaign committee, nor with its consent. …
All McCord had done for CREEP, according to Mitchell’s statement, was to help install their security system months before the burglary.
Martha knew her husband was lying, but she didn’t know why. She tried to call him to find out what was going on, but she had trouble reaching him. Frustrated, she finally she reached one of his aides and, in a fury, told him that her next call would be to her friend Helen Thomas, a reporter at the United Press International newswire.
King, the security guard who had been assigned to look after Martha, was instructed to keep her away from the phone. But this was easier said than done.
On Thursday, June 22, five days after the break-in, Martha pretended to be asleep and sneaked off to call Helen Thomas. She didn’t spill the beans on Watergate right away. But when the subject came up, she got very agitated and started talking about how if her husband didn’t get out of the “dirty business” of politics, she would leave him.
Helen Thomas: And she said, “I’ve given John an ultimatum.” This really set her off.
Before Thomas got a chance to ask Martha what kind of “dirty business” she was talking about, she suddenly heard Martha exclaim, “You just get away—get away!”
Thomas: “Get away. Get away.” And I didn’t know what was happening, and then there was a phone disconnect.
Then … the line went dead.
Thomas tried to call back a few times, unsuccessfully, before reaching a switchboard operator who told her that “Mrs. Mitchell was indisposed and could not talk.” Thomas then called John Mitchell himself and told him what had happened. He sounded strangely blasé in his reply. “That little sweetheart,” he said. “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.”
As Martha later explained, it was Steve King, the former FBI agent, who had interrupted her call with Helen Thomas.
Mitchell: And this King rushes in and jerked out the telephone.
Like, he literally tore the cord out of the wall.
That night, Martha was locked in her room, and after trying to climb out through a balcony, she got into some kind of struggle with King and ended up putting her hand through a plate-glass patio door. Soon after, Nixon’s personal lawyer, Herb Kalmbach, was summoned to the hotel to deal with the rapidly escalating situation. He decided to bring in a doctor, who came over to find Martha desperately upset and shouting things—things like “I’m being held a political prisoner” and “I know information!”
With this, five men held Martha down on her bed while the doctor injected her with a tranquilizer—or as Martha put it, “He stuck a needle in her behind.” At some point, she would claim, Steve King kicked her.
Reporter: Martha Mitchell today identified the bodyguard she said tore a telephone out of her wall, threw her to the floor, and kicked her. Mrs. Mitchell said the man is Steve King, who is presently employed as chief of security …
King, who went on to become chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, was recently named ambassador to the Czech Republic by Donald Trump. I tried to reach him for comment, but he never got back to me.
Martha flew back east the day after getting her hand stitched up at a hospital. On Sunday morning, a week after the burglary, she reached Helen Thomas for a second time, and told her, “I love my husband very much, but I’m not going to stand for all those dirty things.”
“I’m black and blue,” she said. “They don’t want me to talk.”
While there were newspaper stories about Martha’s confinement, they mostly ran in the so-called women’s pages. As Helen Thomas, who died in 2013, put it in her memoir, “Editors thought it was just another case of Martha being Martha and newsworthy only because it revealed a rift in a very public marriage.”
That rift grew as John Mitchell and his associates worked feverishly to cover up the White House’s role in the Watergate burglary, while Martha became convinced that Richard Nixon himself had personally orchestrated the whole thing.
Mitchell: My husband has done everything to protect Mr. President. Mr. Mitchell has become the fall guy.
One component of that cover-up was a concerted effort to discredit Martha in the press—to paint her as a drunken wreck and a head case, someone who couldn’t be believed no matter what she said.
Mitchell: So I played into their hands beautifully because when I got back, instead of going out and seeing people, I stayed in the apartment. And all the while, these White House rumors are persisting. Martha Mitchell’s crazy. Martha Mitchell’s an alcoholic. Martha Mitchell’s this, Martha Mitchell’s that. And of course they just kept on and on, and I stayed in the apartment. And it added to the beautiful little story.
Not long after the break-in, John Mitchell resigned as the head of CREEP—he said he wanted to spend more time with his wife and his daughter. But by the summer of 1973, Martha and her husband were hardly speaking to each other, even though they continued living together in their New York City apartment. According to Martha, John had become a “broken recluse.” “I can’t get through to him,” she said.
Ultimately Martha told John that he had to choose between his family and his president—which is to say, he had to turn on Nixon and save himself, or else.
Reporter: Martha Mitchell is going to leave her husband, the former attorney general, because she believes he’s going to jail. …
In a news story announcing their impending separation, Martha was quoted as saying that her husband was a “fool for choosing to shield the president.”
According to her biography, Martha lost respect for John because she believed he was bending to Nixon’s will. “I continue to reflect on the past,” she said. “I forage for the answer. How could a weak, insecure man—a conglomerate of nothing—manipulate and overpower a strong, confident person like John Mitchell?”
After John moved out, Martha attacked a portrait of him that had been hanging on the wall in their apartment. She smeared it with turpentine, Clorox, mayonnaise, and Heinz ketchup. In doing so, the Washington Post reported, “Martha erased John Mitchell’s face from the canvas.”
I learned about Martha Mitchell from a book called Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, by journalist J. Anthony Lukas. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard her story before. How is it possible, I thought, that I’d never known about this very famous woman, this political celebrity who was married to the former attorney general, and who had tried to blow the whistle on Richard Nixon and had been sedated against her will? If you had followed Watergate as it unfolded, you would have definitely been reading about Martha Mitchell. But if your knowledge of the scandal has come mostly from the movie version of All the President’s Men, you probably have no idea who she is.
I realized recently that Martha Mitchell reminds me of someone. Someone who has nothing to do with her, or with her husband, or with Watergate. Someone by the name of Anthony Scaramucci. Remember him?
Anthony Scaramucci: You know, one of the things I cannot stand about this town is the backstabbing that goes on here, OK? Where I grew up, in the neighborhood I’m from, we’re front-stabbers.
He was a loudmouth from Long Island who became Trump’s communications director for 10 days in July, during which he told a New Yorker reporter that Steve Bannon was “trying to suck his own cock.” Now, I want to be clear here—it’s not that Martha Mitchell and Anthony Scaramucci were similar figures. And it’s not even that they got talked about in the same way. It’s this: If you’ve been following politics, you probably spent a lot of time thinking about the Mooch this past summer. And then he got fired, and now we’ve all pretty much forgotten that he ever existed.
But the brief rise and rapid fall of Anthony Scaramucci was really entertaining. It also probably tells us as much about this year in politics as anything else that’s happened in 2017. If historians 45 years from now want to understand the Trump administration, they could do a lot worse than taking a long hard look at the Scaramucci era, brief as it was.
Now, I can tell you, having spent the past two months reading old articles about the Nixon years and interviewing people who experienced those years firsthand, there are dozens of Scaramucci-level stories about Watergate—stories that everyone knew at the time, but that, for whatever reason, have not been passed down in our collective memory.
I think that’s why hearing Martha Mitchell’s story gives me such a vivid sense of what it was like to live through Watergate. It lets me inhabit that moment when no one knew what was going to happen. When the people involved didn’t know. The reporters covering it didn’t know. Nixon himself certainly had no idea.
Imagining Martha on the phone with Helen Thomas that night in June, about to blow the lid off this thing, you can catch a glimpse of an alternative reality in which everything played out differently: What if she had managed to stay on the phone? What would she have told Helen Thomas about James McCord and John Mitchell and the burglary?
Thinking about Martha Mitchell forces us to put aside what we know about Watergate, and it lets us imagine what it felt like to find out about it in real time. How did people defend Nixon as this saga unfurled? What were the turning points? What did it feel like to absorb the daily drip of news, when you didn’t know what was coming next or how it was all going to end?
In the process of telling that story, we’ll be excavating all kinds of subplots that some of you may have forgotten and others never knew in the first place.
I’ll also be introducing you to more people like Martha Mitchell—people who were involved in the burglary, or the cover-up, or the investigation, but who have not become canonical figures along the lines of Woodward and Bernstein, Deep Throat, and John Dean. Among the fascinating bit players you’ll meet is a 79-year-old populist from Texas, sort of the Elizabeth Warren of his time, who led the first congressional investigation into Watergate. You’re also going to meet the senator who, despite being a segregationist, became a liberal hero when he led the Senate Watergate hearings the summer of ’73. Then there are all of Nixon’s apologists—the commentators and the politicians who stuck by the president even after it became clear that he was a criminal.
You might be asking, why are we doing this now? It’s not like there’s some big anniversary to celebrate. And the answer is this: We are living at a time right now when it feels like anything could happen. It makes you wonder: If we were living through the next Watergate, would we know it? That’s what I’m hoping we figure out by the time we get to the end of the story.
One thing I’ve already figured out is that Watergate was kind of a blast to live through, at least for some people. Dick Cavett, the late-night host, who interviewed a slew of people involved in the Watergate saga on his show throughout 1972 and ’73, told me he still thinks back on that time of his life with a great deal of wistfulness.
Dick Cavett: I must say I miss it terribly. I think of it the way you would think of, in your earlier years—you got to spend a year in Paris, and you never got to go back. You can never go back. You can never get back to that wonderful feeling.
He brought up a comment that Gore Vidal made on his show.
Gore Vidal: I have to have my Watergate fix every single morning in the paper. I get like this if I haven’t …
Cavett: There are Watergate junkies all over—it’s become an important part of people’s lives.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I feel that way about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. Watching the Comey hearings and reading about who special prosecutor Robert Mueller has subpoenaed, watching Trump blast the reporting as “fake news”—for people who follow politics, it’s been gripping and exciting, even as it fills us with dread. It was the same during the Nixon administration: People felt this giddy mixture of excitement, and obsession, and anxiety all at once. It was thrilling, and it was also very serious.
Which brings us back to Martha Mitchell. In the end, she paid dearly for the limited role she’d played in the Nixon administration’s downfall.
Whether she could really have ended the whole thing before it started by blowing the cover-up in its first days, I don’t know. But her life as a fun-loving, fast-talking bon vivant pretty much ended with Watergate, even though she did continue to appear on television every once in a while. She told her biographer about the last conversation she had with her husband before the fallout from the break-in took over their lives. “Those were the last decent words we ever had together,” she said.
In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”
At her funeral, somebody held up an arrangement of white chrysanthemums spelling out the words: “MARTHA WAS RIGHT.”
And I should say, Martha was one of the first public figures to call for Nixon’s resignation. She did it in May of ’73, more than a year before he left office. She told Helen Thomas that Nixon had let the country down.
Amazingly, Nixon pointed the finger right back at her. Here he is during his famous interview with David Frost in 1977:
Nixon: I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha—and God rest her soul, because she in her heart was a good person. 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.
This was Richard Nixon’s big insight a little less than three years after resigning the presidency in disgrace: that maybe the whole mess could have been avoided if not for his co-conspirator’s crazy wife.
Nixon: The point of the matter is that if John had been watching that store, Watergate would never have happened. Now, am I saying here at this late juncture, Watergate should be blamed on Martha Mitchell? Of course not. It might have happened anyway. Other things might have brought it on. Who knows?
Most people have forgotten about Martha Mitchell by now, but there is one context in which her name still comes up. Psychologists talk about a phenomenon in which someone gets diagnosed as delusional or paranoid because they’re saying things that seem totally crazy and implausible—but then it turns out that they’re not crazy after all, and that what they’re saying is true. They call that phenomenon “The Martha Mitchell Effect.”
This podcast is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. Slate Plus members get a complete bonus episode of Slow Burn every week, going deeper into the wild world of Watergate. I’ll be sharing some of the amazing stuff I’ve found in researching the series and playing extended versions of my interviews with people who watched it all go down.
This week, we’ve got more from Dick Cavett, the highbrow talk show host who interviewed so many of the Watergate players on his show.
Cavett: To me, the saddest thing that Nixon did was continue to let his nice daughter Julie go about the country defending him, with his knowing that the things he had told her were not true.
Neyfakh: I wonder if our Ivanka will go down the same way.
Cavett: I’d rather not think about it.
Slate Plus members also help support the show and the rest of our work. You can find out more, and sign up for Slate Plus, at slate.com/watergate.
Thanks to the NBC News archive, the BBC, Daphne Productions, Schlatter-Friendly/Romart Productions, and Reelin’ in the Years Productions for the archival audio you heard on this episode.
You can see a full list of the books, articles, and documentaries that we relied on in researching this episode at our show page.
Slow Burn is produced by me and Andrew Parsons. Our script editor is Josh Levin. Gabriel Roth is the editorial director of Slate Plus. The artwork for the show is by Teddy Blanks from Chips. Special thanks to Slate’s June Thomas and Steve Lickteig.
Next week on Slow Burn: You’ve probably heard about the famous Senate Watergate hearings of 1973. But did you know about the other Watergate hearings? In Episode 2, we’ll hear the story of how the first major investigation into the president’s dirty tricks ended with an enraged congressman delivering a lecture to four conspicuously empty chairs.
Wright Patman: President Nixon is responsible for those four empty chairs. He’s responsible for this secrecy.
I’m Leon Neyfakh. See you next week.