She Was ‘Just the Wife’. Revisiting Martha Mitchell

“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate”

“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate”. In 1977, 3 years after his resignation, Nixon blamed one woman for the scandal that rocked America in 1972.

Martha Mitchell was married to John Mitchell, a close personal friend of Nixon’s, and director of Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign. She was also an outspoken supporter of the Republican party and a popular socialite, appearing in numerous talk shows. This led to her nickname, “The Mouth of the South”.

Nixon’s underestimation of Mitchell’s power and influence, despite closely monitoring her, led to the scoop of the century. When Mitchell discovered that the break-in at the Democratic headquarters was orchestrated by the Nixon administration, she called Helen Thomas, a reporter.

The events that followed changed her life forever. She was assaulted, tranquilised against her will, and held in a hotel for 24 hours. Nixon’s aides tried to discredit her by telling the press she had a drinking problem and had had a breakdown. When she was released, she wrote a angry letter to Parade, detailing her abuse. She and her husband soon divorced, and in 1975, he went to prison for 19 months for his involvement in the scandal. However, by 1976, she died from a rare bone cancer.

Throughout her life, Mitchell constantly had to defend herself and her experiences. Her treatment in the press as a woman was always problematic (“Why do they always call me outspoken? Can’t they just say I’m frank?”), and her treatment at the hands of the Nixon administration was illegal and abusive. A psychological phenomenon is even named after her: The “Martha Mitchell effect” refers to the process by which a mental health professional misdiagnoses a patient as delusional when they are telling the truth.

Mitchell got her revenge when Nixon was exposed in 1974, and her legacy is one of bravery and strength in the face of injustice. However, Trump’s appointment of the Nixon agent who assaulted her, Stephen King, as ambassador to the Czech Republic, casts yet another pall over the story of a woman who sought to be heard and believed.