In psychology circles, there’s an unofficial concept called “the Martha Mitchell effect.” It’s the tendency to diagnose someone as mentally ill simply because the story they tell is so bizarre, without checking whether the bizarre story is in fact true.
That’s what happened to Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of President Richard M. Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell. She was dismissed as “crazy” for her wild claims about the Nixon administration and issued a public ultimatum to her husband to choose her or the president.
This week, another marital spat gripped Washington as President Trump tweeted insults about George Conway, the husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, calling him a “total loser” and “husband from hell.” Kellyanne Conway said Thursday she has no intention of resigning. Unlike Mitchell, George Conway isn’t being accused of being mentally ill. In fact, he has lately been tweeting that Trump is the one with mental illness.
Mitchell arrived on the Washington social scene in 1969 as her husband became Nixon’s attorney general and right-hand man. For years, the witty Southerner was the toast of town and television, often calling reporters and appearing on evening talk shows to joke about antiwar protesters and Supreme Court justices she didn’t like, earning her the nickname “the Mouth of the South.” She even did a guest spot on the comedy variety show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” capitalizing on her reputation has a charming gossip:
Lily Tomlin (as nosy phone operator Ernestine): “Tell me, Mrs. Mitchell, do you have any time left over for hobbies?”
Mitchell: “Yes. I like to read the funny papers.”
Tomlin: “The funny papers — which ones are your favorites?”
Mitchell: “The New York Times and The Washington Post.”
For some, her commentary could go too far. In the Slate podcast “Slow Burn,” Leon Neyfakh describes Nixon at one point telling his chief of staff, “We need to turn off Martha.”
In the spring of 1972, John Mitchell resigned as attorney general to become Nixon’s campaign manager for his reelection. And in June, Martha joined her husband in California for several campaign events. It was there, on the night of June 17, that John Mitchell got a call about some arrests made at the Watergate Hotel.
According to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Mitchell realized that if his wife found out that she knew one of the men arrested, James McCord, she might become upset and tell reporters about it, thus tipping them off to the connection between the burglars and the president. So as he headed back to Washington, he instructed security guards working for the campaign to keep his wife in the dark in California — and to stop her from calling members of the media.
But find out she did, and just as her husband predicted, she soon called UPI’s Helen Thomas.
“I’m sick and tired of the whole operation,” she said, before telling Thomas she was giving her husband an “ultimatum” — her or Nixon.
“The conversation ended abruptly when it appeared that somebody had taken the phone from her hand,” Thomas reported. “She was heard to say, ‘You just get away.’ ”
Martha Mitchell later said one of the guards discovered her and ripped the phone from the wall. She was kept in the hotel room for days, she said, where the guard held her down as a doctor injected her with sedatives, her young daughter watching the whole time.
“I’m black and blue,” she told Thomas days later. “I’m a political prisoner.”
(As former Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein notes in Newsweek, the man Mitchell accused of roughing her up and “kidnapping” her, Stephen King, is now Trump’s ambassador to the Czech Republic.)
“Historians disagree on what exactly Martha Mitchell really knew about Watergate,” Neyfakh said. But she intimated to reporters that her public ultimatum to her husband was meant to extricate him from “all those dirty things that go on.”
The Nixon camp fought back, spreading rumors that she was an alcoholic suffering from mental illness.
A week and a lot of phone calls to Thomas later, Mitchell seemed to get what she wanted. John Mitchell tendered his resignation to Nixon, writing, “I have found that I can no longer [carry out the job] and still meet the one obligation which must come first: the happiness and welfare of my wife and daughter.”
Martha Mitchell’s celebration — “I’m going to have a ball in New York!” she told the New York Times — didn’t last. The next year, as her husband remained loyal to Nixon in his Senate testimony, “he walked out and left me with $945,” she told The Washington Post. They separated, and around the time of his 1975 criminal trial, she sued him for back alimony.
Martha Mitchell died of cancer in 1976, at age 57. Her attorney told UPI she had been “desperately ill, without friends and without funds.” She was buried in her hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark.
John Mitchell was found guilty of conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice related to the Watergate break-in and spent 19 months in prison.
In 1977, Nixon threw Martha under the bus one last time, telling journalist David Frost that Martha’s alleged mental-health troubles in the spring of 1972 distracted John from “minding that store,” thus allowing the Watergate crisis to happen.
“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate,” he said.
This story has been updated with Stephen King’s position as Trump’s ambassador to the Czech Republic.
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