The alacrity —the relief— with which her fellow journalists allowed Helen Thomas to be offed is shameful but understandable. She showed them all up. She was the only one whose questions weren’t mealy-mouthed, the only anti-war voice in a roomful of enablers.
Polite reviews of her career credit Thomas with gender-related firsts and longevity. None acknowledge the role she played in exposing the Watergate cover-up. It was Helen Thomas who lent a sympathetic, respectful ear when Martha Mitchell claimed that the burglary of Democratic Party files had been planned at the highest levels in the White House. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…
John Mitchell, Martha’s second husband, was a successful Wall St. lawyer whose firm hired Nixon after Tricky Dick lost his bid to become Governor of California in 1962. Six years later, with the U.S. military mired in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson resigned, the Democrats split into pro- and anti-war camps, and Nixon was elected president. John Mitchell moved to Washington to be attorney general.
At first, Martha Mitchell, a belle from Arkansas, actually believed Nixon’s lip-service about the wives of his cabinet members playing an active role in his administration. She soon became disenchanted. She hated the way, at parties, “the men went off by themselves for cordials and cigars on the sun porch and the women went to another room.” She would look at the women in the living room “in their beautiful gowns, lined up like dolls in a museum and think ‘We’re nothing but window dressing!'” She hated Chief Justice Warren Burger because he gave her a lecture about smoking.
Martha Mitchell overheard a lot of things that dismayed her. Occasionally she would place a nocturnal phone call to a reporter —Helen Thomas of United Press International was her favorite— to share observations. Nixon viewed her as a vague threat. He feared and hated women in general, according to Martha. “I didn’t even exist,” she told Winzola McClendon, a reporter who became her biographer; “nor in my opinion, did any woman, as far as Richard Nixon was concerned. He wanted men around him.”
Martha wanted John to leave the government and return to his law practice in Manhattan. According to McLendon’s revealing biography, she dreamed of throwing dinner parties for his sophisticated private-sector clients, far away from Haldeman, Ehrlichman and the other low-level management types who ran the White House. John promised that they would get out of Washington after the ’72 election. He resigned as Attorney General that spring so he could run the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP).
Mitchell’s strategy called for Nixon to remain in the White House and act “presidential.” He feared that if Nixon were out campaigning, the American people might pick up on just how bizarre his personality really was. By the spring of 1972, the Republicans’ top drawing card at campaign events was none other than Martha Mitchell. When Henry Kissinger had to bow out of a June 16 fundraising event in Newport Beach, CREEP assigned Martha. That’s where she was —partying with Charlton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and John Wayne— on the night of the Watergate break-in. The party was a drag and Pat Nixon snubbed Martha, as usual.
Back at the hotel Martha wanted to discuss the snub with John, but he was huddled with his aides. They didn’t tell her that five CREEP operatives had just been caught trying to steal files from Democratic Party headquarters. Keeping the about-to-break news from Martha was literally the first step of the Watergate cover-up. Next morning John flew back to D.C. to direct the disinformation campaign, after convincing Martha to stay in California because she needed rest.
Martha got an LA Times and read that James McCord, a CREEP employee, had been arrested. The story contained a statement by her husband that she knew to be a lie: “A man identified as employed by our campaign committee was one of five persons arrested at the Democratic National Committee headquarters… The person involved is the proprietor of a private security agency who was employed at our committee months ago to assist with the installation of our security system… We want to emphasize that this man and the other people were not operating either in our behalf or with our consent.”
John Mitchell had delegated two people to stay with Martha at the Newporter Inn: his secretary, Lea Jablonsky, and a security guard named Steve King. Martha kept drinking Scotch, smoking Salems and growing more and more agitated as her husband refused to take her phone calls. On June 22 she called her Washington apartment and told John Mitchell’s aide, Fred LaRue, that if her husband didn’t quit politics immediately, she would leave him. She added that she was going to tell the press. She then called Helen Thomas of UPI. While Martha was on the phone with Thomas, Steve King –alerted by LaRue or Mitchell– ran into her bedroom, threw her onto the bed and ripped the phone out of the wall.
“The conversation ended abruptly when it appeared someone took away the phone from her hand,” Helen Thomas reported. “She was heard to say ‘You just get away.'” When Thomas called back the hotel operator told her, “Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed and cannot talk.”
The White House put out the story that Martha was about to be institutionalized. Back at the Newport Inn, her guards wouldn’t give her food but plied her with liquor. She eventually negotiated the right to fly back east. She checked into the Westchester Country Club and called UPI to declare, “I’m leaving him until he decides to leave the campaign. It’s horrible to me… I’m not going to stand for all those dirty things that go on. If you could see me you wouldn’t believe it. I’m black and blue. I’m a political prisoner… They don’t want me to talk.”
In his famous comeback interview with David Frost in September ’77, Richard Nixon said, “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate, because John wasn’t mindin’ the store.” Nixon told Frost that Martha was mentally unbalanced and that “John was practically out of his mind about Martha in the spring of 1972. He was letting Magruder and all these boys, these kids, these nuts, run this thing.”
It was a total lie. In the spring of 1972 Martha Mitchell was a highly active, visible and popular member of the Committee to Re-Elect the President. They turned her into a crazy drunken dame.
In All The President’s Men there’s a turning-point scene in which Jason Robards, the editor of the Washington post (played by Ben Bradlee) tells Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford (played by Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward) that he just can’t let them make unsubstantiated allegations about the president of the United States —as if the Attorney General’s wife hadn’t been making the same allegations for months to Helen Thomas! Woodward and Bernstein didn’t break the story, they confirmed it.
FRED GARDNER is editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org