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During Watergate, John Mitchell Left His Wife. She Called Bob Woodward.

‘Please nail him’: The untold story of how Martha Mitchell took revenge against her husband

Martha and John Mitchell in 1971. (Bettmann Archive)
Martha and John Mitchell in 1971. (Bettmann Archive)
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There was no mistaking the voice on the other end of the phone line. That twangy timbre. Brash and sass. Undiluted Arkansas Delta.

Bob Woodward had heard this voice before. So when he answered his desk phone in the Washington Post newsroom that Sunday in the spring of 1974 he didn’t have to strain to realize he was talking to Martha Mitchell, the mercurial wife of President Richard Nixon’s former attorney general, the corrupt, pipe-smoking John Mitchell.

Portrayed by Julia Roberts in a Starz miniseries that started airing this spring, Martha Mitchell was something of a star in those days in Washington. She had style. She laughed loudest. She piled that marvelous thick blond hair higher and higher. In an era when the men ran most everything, she said what she wanted — and did what she wanted. She may have been married to one of the most famous men in Washington, but she refused to be defined as a “wife of” someone.

She considered herself to be someone. She was, as the papers sometimes put it, “Washington’s other Martha.” The capital crowd called her “The Mouth of the South.” She was almost impossible to control — though her husband and his thuggish crew tried.

On this particular Sunday, Martha was calling Woodward with an invitation. Her husband, recently indicted for a second time in the cascading Watergate scandal, had left her, moving out of their Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan. Would Woodward and his reporting partner, Carl Bernstein — she always pronounced it, incorrectly, as “bern-STINE” ― like to come up and look through her husband’s home office?

Woodward, discussing the episode at length publicly for the first time in an interview at his Georgetown home, said he did not want to miss such a rare opportunity. The sequence of events shows Mitchell at her most swaggering but also offers a glimpse at the reportorial techniques that made Woodward and Bernstein two of the most celebrated journalists of the 20th century.

Woodward — this methodical former Navy man who speaks in the measured, flat affect of his Midwestern roots — is at his core a grinder, a journalistic machine who thinks through all the angles. First, he had to consider his source. Martha Mitchell had a well-earned reputation as a Washingtonian who liked to talk to reporters. He’d first encountered her three years earlier when, as a young reporter, he published an article about her complaints regarding black smoke polluting the air near the home where they lived at the time, in a building that had yet to become synonymous with political scandal: the Watergate.

She was undeterred when she was informed that the grime emanated from a heating plant that serviced the White House and the Department of Justice, where her husband reigned as attorney general. When the Watergate break-in drama was in full flower, she initially was an ardent supporter of her husband’s, fretting to the New York Times that sinister forces were trying to make him “the goat” of the scandal. But her mood darkened as time went along. She complained to the media about “dirty things” happening in Washington and threatened to leave her husband if he did not get out of politics.

She’d spend hours on the phone with reporters, including describing a bizarre scene where she says she was drugged and held against her will for three days by a staffer who worked for her husband, who was chairman of Nixon’s reelection campaign at the time. She certainly didn’t mind seeing her name in print. And what she said tended to check out.

“She’s the angry wife,” Woodward thought before heading to New York at Mitchell’s invitation. “But she’s a reliable angry wife.” Mitchell didn’t have a grasp of the specifics of her husband’s involvement in Watergate, Bernstein told me, “but what she was so right about from the beginning was the coverup.”

Woodward also was confronted with the not-so-small matter of entering a man’s private office and going through his things without his permission — even though he’d been invited by the man’s estranged wife. This, Woodward decided, merited a phone call to Edward Bennett Williams, The Post’s famed attorney.

Williams settled on a legal concept called “constructive abandonment,” Woodward told me. Since the former attorney general had moved out of the apartment, the papers he’d left in his office were no different than papers he might have thrown in the garbage. In other words, they were fair game. (After more than half a century as a journalist and having written 21 books, Woodward tells me he’s never rooted around in a garbage can for reporting material.)

Satisfied that they were working with a solid source and were on firm legal ground, Woodward and Bernstein headed for the airport and caught the Eastern Air Lines shuttle to New York. When they arrived midafternoon, Martha Mitchell greeted them at the door of her Fifth Avenue apartment. She held a martini in her hand. She was “gracious” and “a little drunk,” Bernstein recalled. Mitchell gave the reporters a tour of the well-appointed space with its floral print sofas. Then, she pointed down a long hallway. John Mitchell’s office.

“Have at it, boys,” she told them. “Please nail him. I hope you get the bastard.”

Bernstein hopped on a chair and hoisted himself into a large crawl space at the top of the office closet. He pulled out boxes, binders and leatherette bank folders, then passed them to Woodward below.

They were there for hours. Mitchell ordered Chinese food. Finally, they’d accumulated a stack of potentially useful papers. For all these years, Woodward, who is an Olympic-level hoarder of his reporting finds, has kept a file of the documents he gathered that afternoon and evening. He shared them with me one recent afternoon.

The most intriguing are 14 pages of John Mitchell’s handwritten notes, some of which include references to a grand jury appearance. (It’s not clear which one. He appeared at least twice, once in September 1972 as a fact witness and again in April 1973 when he’d been told by prosecutors that he was a target of their probe.)

The notes offer a peek into Mitchell’s perception of the case against him. Mitchell wrote that a prosecutor, whom he did not name, said, “I’m very, very sorry” after Mitchell testified. Mitchell speculated that the prosecutor could have been apologizing for the way he questioned the former attorney general.

Prosecutors pressed “very hard,” Mitchell wrote, “on moral issues,” including his failure to tell the grand jury about his meetings with G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon campaign operative who was later convicted of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping in the Watergate break-in. Mitchell wrote that he also faced questions about why he hadn’t warned his “good friend” Fred LaRue — a bagman who delivered hush money to Watergate conspirators — not to accept money from the “W.H.,” presumably a reference to the Nixon White House.

The documents provided material that informed The Post’s coverage of Watergate, but Woodward can only remember the trip producing one big scoop. The story landed on The Post’s front page in June 1974, revealing that Elmer Bobst, whom Nixon sometimes described as his “honorary father,” wrote a letter in 1971 to Mitchell promising that a friend would donate $100,000 to Nixon’s campaign in return for help on a case pending before the Federal Trade Commission. (Mitchell was Nixon’s attorney general when the Bobst letter was sent. He later headed the Committee to Re-elect the President, or CREEP, for several months in 1972.)

By then, John Mitchell’s smash-mouth attorney, Bill Hundley, had figured out that Martha Mitchell had provided documents to Woodward and Bernstein. “I know the b---- gave them to you,” Hundley told Woodward.

Woodward refused to confirm the lawyer’s suspicions, citing the newspaper’s policy of protecting its sources. Still, Hundley threatened to ask the judge in John Mitchell’s case to hold Woodward and Bernstein in contempt of court if they did not return the material, which included documents related to his client’s preparation for an upcoming criminal trial.

Now Woodward had a choice to make. And he knew he had to move fast. Hundley was not a man with whom to trifle — he did not make empty threats.

Woodward made a very Woodwardian calculation: He would play the long game.

Hundley was making a stern demand to return the documents, yet he had not specifically said Woodward could not copy the material. It might have been an oversight. It might have been intentional. It didn’t matter.

Woodward realized it was a win-win situation. He could have the material by copying it. Mitchell would get his documents back. And The Post would avoid a legal mess.

In The Post’s cluttered newsroom, Woodward put out a call for some of the paper’s least known but generally beloved staffers: the small army of copy aides. It was “emergency Xeroxing,” Woodward recalled with a chuckle.

Woodward also reasoned that Hundley could be useful in the future. Why make an enemy? As the years went along, Woodward was right. Hundley, who also had a good source relationship with Bernstein, remained a helpful contact who quietly provided “guidance” on legal cases and did not put up “the kind of steel shield that lots of attorneys erect,” Woodward told me.

Woodward made these decisions on his own. He initially didn’t tell Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor who had been so intimately involved in Watergate coverage decisions. He didn’t tell Bernstein. He was worried Bradlee and Bernstein would try to fend off Hundley’s request and put The Post into a “defensive crouch.” Even though he thought Bradlee would see the wisdom of the decision, there was no time for persuasion. Hundley was insisting the documents be returned the next day. (Shortly thereafter Woodward filled in Bradlee and Bernstein, both of whom supported his decision.)

While talking with Woodward, who is now 79, I wondered why he would tell this story after all these years of keeping it to himself. His answer was that we are in a new era of even greater “transparency.” He was keeping up with the times.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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