The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Martha Mitchell’s firing of a bodyguard spurred Watergate scandal

Former FBI agent Alfred Baldwin testifies on May 25, 1973, on Capitol Hill before the Senate Watergate Committee. (AP) (Anonymous/AP)

In the second episode of “Gaslit,” the new STARZ limited series about Martha and John Mitchell, starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, there’s a scene set in the Howard Johnson across the street from the Watergate. In a hotel room there, a lookout named Alfred Baldwin misses the plainclothes policemen who enter the building to arrest the burglars in the Democratic Party headquarters.

Baldwin, played by Ivan Martin, has always been a major figure in Watergate lore, but in the decades after the scandal, he fell into obscurity — so much so that his death was announced just recently even though he died in January 2020 at age 83.

Although his role as the lookout was also famously portrayed in a scene in the movie “All the President’s Men,” few have known that Baldwin’s work with the break-in team came about only because he had washed out as a bodyguard for the irascible Martha Mitchell.

Once she fired Baldwin, the people at Richard M. Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (known to Nixon critics as “CREEP”) kept him on to do surveillance work on war protesters — Baldwin went undercover by dressing up as a hippie — and ultimately asked him to work on the Watergate operation. He acted as a lookout and produced transcripts of conversations picked up by the bugs left in the Democratic headquarters after the first break-in. (The arrests took place during a second break-in.)

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Such serendipity often changes history. In this case, the sequence of events that followed brought down a president.

Baldwin was identified as a potential bodyguard for Martha Mitchell just a month before the break-ins began. James McCord (depicted by Chris Bauer in “Gaslit”), a former CIA eavesdropping expert and CREEP’s director of security, had the job of locating bodyguards for both John Mitchell, the attorney general-turned-1972 campaign chairman, and his wife, Martha, a regular speaker for the administration who often drew enormous crowds as a quirky and colorful figure among a staff of mostly dour, buttoned-up men.

McCord was having trouble finding a good candidate for the protective detail because of Martha Mitchell’s reputation for drinking and abusing employees. McCord consulted a roster of ex-FBI agents in New York and was turned down by one after another. According to later FBI reports, one of the interviewees contacted by McCord said that the job requirements were simple: “age — late thirties or early forties” and “athletic background.”

At least five former agents were interviewed before McCord landed on the 36-year-old Baldwin. From New Haven, Conn., Baldwin was a hapless lawyer and ex-FBI agent who was divorced and floundering. In the ex-FBI agent registry, Baldwin underscored that he could be available on short notice for any new security assignments. McCord was desperate.

The vetting process was next to nonexistent. McCord called Baldwin on May 1, 1972, and asked him to come to Washington for an interview as “a matter of urgency.” Baldwin drove that night to D.C. and met the next morning with McCord and John Mitchell’s assistant Fred LaRue.

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Baldwin was told that Martha Mitchell would be traveling to the Midwest that day, and he was hired on the spot. McCord issued him a .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver. “You will need this while you are with Mrs. Mitchell,” McCord said. “You know how to use one of these?” Baldwin assured him he did.

On the train ride that evening to Michigan, Mitchell, who did not like flying, made her way back to Baldwin’s compartment. According to her personal secretary, Kristen Forsberg, Mitchell and Baldwin chatted over drinks.

They were alone together on the trip the next day from Detroit to New York City, when the train hit and killed a pedestrian. Baldwin grew morose. Forsberg later told the FBI that after they arrived, an annoyed Mitchell “mentioned that Baldwin kept bringing up the subject of the accident repeatedly.”

The next day, Baldwin accompanied her to a luncheon at the Waldorf. Mitchell saw Baldwin laughing and joking with a couple there, and that was the final straw. She told Forsberg that she considered Baldwin “pushy, vocal and someone who would not stay in the background.” He was sacked after one trip.

“That’s it,” Mitchell said in exasperation. “I’m not taking any more recommendations from McCord.”

In a deposition for a lawsuit filed by Democrats after the break-in, Mitchell complained about McCord’s choices for her bodyguards, calling them “these horrible creatures.”

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McCord felt sorry for Baldwin and tried to find him other assignments for CREEP. Baldwin, in costume, mixed with war protesters during the week the Pentagon was bombed by the Weather Underground.

And then, fatefully, Baldwin found himself in a hotel room listening from early morning to midnight to bugged telephone conversations from the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate across the street. It turned out that the burglars had put the listening devices in the wrong office, and most of what Baldwin listened to were calls between secretaries and husbands or boyfriends. The transcripts of these calls were so disappointing that a second break-in was ordered for the night of June 16-17, 1972 — 50 years ago this month.

Baldwin missed the plainclothes undercover cops who showed up to investigate a call that the security guard Frank Wills (played by Patrick Walker in “Gaslit”) placed when he noticed that a door in the basement had been taped open for a second time.

Legend has it that Baldwin was watching TV when the police officers arrived, but Baldwin always denied that. What we do know is that once the lights started flashing in the DNC, Baldwin tried too late to warn the burglars by walkie-talkie. “They got us,” was the last transmission from McCord and his group.

The FBI traced a number in the Howard Johnson phone logs to Baldwin’s Connecticut home. By July 5, he was fully cooperating with investigators. He would play a major role in breaking the case open.

When Baldwin appeared before the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, he told the panel that his life was “shattered.” “I cannot now find employment and I have been without funds,” Baldwin said. “My family has been disgraced.”

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Arguably, more than Baldwin’s personal life was shattered; his failure as a lookout and his early cooperation with investigators were key links in a chain that resulted in Nixon’s resignation two years later. In a “but for” world, maybe Watergate never would have happened had Martha Mitchell kept Baldwin as her bodyguard.

On the other hand, it is hard to say that McCord and his bosses — G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt — might have found a more competent watchman. Baldwin testified that when he was introduced to Liddy and Hunt, McCord tried to use aliases to protect their identities.

But when Liddy and Hunt arrived, McCord introduced Baldwin as “Al” rather than his alias, Bill Johnson. Then McCord could not remember the aliases of Liddy and Hunt. So McCord gave up and “just introduced us under our personal names,” Baldwin testified.

In an operation of this caliber, can you really pin all the blame on a distracted lookout?