Martha Mitchell’s Role in Watergate

“Martha was right.”

The words written by a fan, in 1976, in a floral arrangement at the funeral of Martha Mitchell, are being contextualized 46 years later, in the series Gaslit, by Starz. For Americans, and older, the name has more meaning than it does for foreigners. The conservative and controversial southern US socialite was married to Richard Nixon‘s attorney general, John N. Mitchell, and became the president’s first source to turn against the government when the Watergate scandal broke. However, his story was practically excluded from the general narrative. Everything changed in 2017, with the Slate podcast, Slow Burn, which recounted Martha’s story and caught Hollywood’s attention. With that, the series was born, starring Oscar winners Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchells.

And it was time. Yes, it’s another biographical series changing the terms of history, 50 years later, only in this case there’s something relevant to be revisited. Martha, was an authentic and sincere, foul-mouthed woman who was painted as mentally unstable for many decades, hence the name “Gaslit”, the “slang” inspired by the movie Gaslight about a manipulative man who convinces a woman that she is going crazy just to cover up the truth she discovered. In the case here, it refers to what the series shows, Martha as “the first person to publicly connect the Nixon administration to Watergate”.

In the movie Nixon, Martha was played by Madeleine Khan, now it is the star Julia Roberts who hugs her. Being chosen to be played by the biggest movie star of recent years is very significant. At the time of the crisis, in 1972, she led the Committee for the Reelection of the President (nicknamed CREEP, an analogy for “ghastly”, in a free translation), which today is defended by liberals.

As many biographers have shown, including reducing her to a role of a drunken woman affected by the hormonal changes of menopause, Nixon was irritated by Martha’s outspoken, communicative manner. Her philosophy, even as a political wife, was, to tell the truth: “I decided a long time ago that I’m going to say how I feel. And if it doesn’t conform to the president’s message, so be it. If that bans me from Air Force One, I will fly commercially,” he famously declared in an interview. Nixon had reason to fear her.

His sincerity, obviously in oppressively macho times, has been linked to hysteria, all to discredit the source. Martha and Nixon “disputed” John’s loyalty, who vacillated between his passion for his wife and his allegiance to the President. Their marriage escalated to violence and ended in divorce, but cinematically. Having Sean Penn completely physically transformed into the Attorney General has Emmy written all over it.

The series is called Gaslit precisely because, although John Mitchell loved Martha, it undermined her confidence and belittled her comments, trying to tame his wife’s strong personality. As we know today, Martha Mitchell realized long before her husband that everyone around Nixon was destined to become a scapegoat. Not necessarily an adherent of the feminist cause, but insightful, she challenged the toxic and sexist environment of her time.

Retelling the story of Martha, in the year that Watergate turns 50, is very important. Neither Nixon, nor All the President’s Men made the necessary references to the women involved, almost all of who were reported as insecure, troubled, or alcoholics. Martha was even forcibly silenced in the middle of a phone call with a reporter and confined to a hotel, literally kidnapped on her husband’s orders not to reveal too much about Watergate. Of course, it was useless. One of the arrested invaders was one of the Mitchells’ security and she revealed the truth to the press. Unfortunately, she wasn’t taken very seriously even by reporters.

The Mitchells’ marriage didn’t survive Watergate. Out of love, Martha initially turned to reporters when her husband’s role in the scandal became known and she wanted to defend him, encouraging him to turn against the president. John resigned, citing his desire to spend more time with his family as a reason, but corruption in the GOP was already something that was hard to cover up.

In May 1973, Martha gave sworn testimony at the office of attorney Henry B. Rothblatt in connection with the Democratic Party’s $6.4 million civil lawsuits against the CRP. Months later, in September, her husband would suddenly leave her, leaving the family home with their daughter, Marty. Because of her involvement in the scandal, she was discredited and abandoned by most of her family, except for her son Jay.

John was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy for his involvement in the Watergate burglary, serving 19 months in federal prison. He and Martha never saw each other again.

The kidnapping and attack on Martha were confirmed in 1975, by security hired by John. According to James W. McCord Jr., in addition to fear of what Martha was revealing, Nixon’s aides were “jealous” of her popularity and looked for ways to embarrass her. The main confirmation came from Richard Nixon himself, in his famous interview with David Frost, in 1977: “if it weren’t for Martha Mitchell, there would be no Watergate”.

Depressed, suicidal, and dealing with chemical and alcohol dependence, Martha Mitchell died in 1976 as a result of cancer. He was only 57 years old. For Julia Roberts, her enforced silence has to be reviewed, hence the importance of Gaslit. The series is already available in Brazil.


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