The Martha Mitchell Effect – Four out of Five Stars
The title of documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect (Netflix, since Friday) can be interpreted in two ways.
It refers to the damage the outspoken wife of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell did to Tricky Dicky’s administration with her comments to the press.
It’s also the term coined for a psychiatrist mistakenly or deliberately writing off a patient’s seemingly outlandish claims as delusional, when in fact they’re completely true.
Martha – a colourful socialite whose story was dramatised in the Julia Roberts miniseries Gaslit – was a gift to Washington’s political reporters and gossip columnists.
Disparagingly nicknamed “Martha the Mouth” and “the Mouth from the South”, she was in the habit of making late-night phone calls to journalists – often UPI’s Helen Thomas, her reported favourite – and spilling the beans on what was going on inside the White House.
Martha’s huge personality, booming laugh, flamboyant fashion choices and willingness to speak out, fearlessly and without a filter, made her a sort of celebrity whistleblower, much in demand on TV talk shows and variety programmes.
Nixon, always paranoid and vindictive, considered her an irritant, yet was prepared to tolerate her – at least until she began revealing that the Committee to Re-Elect the President (the CRP, or as it was more commonly known, CREEP) was engaged in “dirty tricks”.
Ironically, Martha, a solid Republican, spoke out in the belief her husband, one of Nixon’s closest friends, was unconnected to all this, when in fact he was up to his neck in it. The Mitchells were in California on a fundraising drive when news of the Watergate burglary broke.
Mitchell returned to Washington, leaving Martha behind. He instructed his security agent Steve King to prevent her from finding out about the Watergate break-in or contacting reporters.
Martha managed to get hold of a copy of the Los Angeles Times and learned that CREEP’s director of security John W McCord, who’d also been her daughter’s bodyguard and driver, was one of the Watergate burglars.
Martha claimed she was effectively kidnapped and held prisoner in a hotel room by King, who tore the phone cable from the wall when she tried to talk to Helen Thomas. She tried to escape by the balcony several times, but was forcibly restrained (and beaten) by five Nixon goons, and required stitches.
When a doctor was eventually summoned, it was to inject her with a tranquiliser to knock her out.
Nixon and his mob made sure nobody believed her. They immediately started spreading muck and planting lies. Martha was mentally ill. Martha was an attention-seeking fantasist. Martha was a typically hysterical woman. Martha was a drunk.
It was a vicious, misogynistic campaign of vilification and ridicule, an example of gaslighting on an epic scale, years before anyone ever used the term.
For the most part, the press rolled with it. Martha’s revelations made the papers, but were buried in the fluffy lifestyle pages. They were covered on television, too, but usually delivered with a smirk from the overwhelmingly male anchors.
The scales eventually fell from her eyes regarding her corrupt husband; the couple split in 1973, never to see one another again. When Mitchell was sentenced to up to eight years in 1975 for his role in the Watergate break-in and cover-up (he ended up serving just 19 months in a cushy open prison), he twisted the knife into his wife for the benefit of the television cameras: “It could have been a hell of a lot of worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha.’’
That same year, Martha, who’d been abandoned by her friends and all but one member of her family, her son, was finally vindicated when McCord admitted she’d been telling the truth about being held against her will in a California hotel.
It all came a little too late, however; she died of multiple myeloma the following year.
The Martha Mitchell Effect crisply elates the story entirely through archive footage and mostly audio contributions from, among others, Bob Woodward and the late Helen Thomas. It’s excellent, but at just 40 minutes, too short to do full justice to a brave woman.