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Watergate’s Golden Anniversary

Photograph Source: Nixon Library – Public Domain

I went to see Woodward playing Redford
Dustin Hoffman played by Carl Bernstein
Martha Mitchell, who really blew the whistle
never got mentioned. She got no credit on the silver screen

Barry Sussman, whose obit ran in the Times June 4, had been a deputy editor on the Washington Post’s metro desk on June 17, 1972 (exactly 50 years ago), when five men wearing surgical gloves were caught breaking into the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Sussman sensed the significance of the episode and assigned Bob Woodward to cover the burglars’ arraignment. Carl Bernstein then “wormed his way in on,” according to another Post editor, Leonard Downie.

In the turbulent months that followed the break-in, it was Sussman who guided Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they pursued the facts, Sussman who edited their copy. He thought he would be their co-author on the eventual book, but they excluded him when they got their contract for All the President’s Men. Sussman was also excluded from the movie, and did not hide his resentment. According to the Times obit by Richard Sandomir, Sussman told an interviewer in 2007  that he had not read All the President’s Men, adding, ‘I don’t have anything good to say about either one of them.'”

Over the years Barry Sussman was undoubtedly told by well-meaning friends that hating Woodward and Bernstein was “eating him up,” that he should put his resentment aside and “move on” and “not be consumed by negativity” and so forth. But Sussman didn’t seek the healing power of forgiveness, and there he was, on his way out the door, flipping off the men who burned him.

In her autobiography, Post publisher Katherine Graham described the effect of the movie on the top editors as “a little like a bite from the apple of discord.” The portrayals “had a negative effect on several real-life relationships. The movie gave everything to Ben (managing editor Ben Bradlee), largely because that made for a simpler storyline and because he was played by Jason Robards… Howard Simons was made quite bitter by the movie. The relationship between Howard and Ben, which had been so generous and fruitful, was never the same again… Barry Sussman was left out altogether, which must have hurt his feelings even more than mine were hurt by having been omitted.”

The higher-ups at the Post who squabbled over credit for the Watergate exposé had collectively and consciously denied credit to the whistleblower who actually broke the story, Martha Mitchell. It was Martha, the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, who first alerted us to the fact that the president himself had ordered the initial break-in and was orchestrating the cover-up. She told reporter Helen Thomas, “They may try to pin this on John Mitchell but it goes all the way to the top.” Mitchell, loyal to Nixon, called his wife a drunken loud-mouthed dame and had her hauled off to a locked facility.

In the movie All The President’s Men there’s a turning-point scene in which Jason Robards (Ben Bradlee) tells Redford and Dustin Hoffman that they must find corroboration, the Post can’t accuse Nixon based only on the word of their lone anonymous source… As if the Attorney General’s wife hadn’t already told the world “It goes all the way to the top!”

Get back, get back in the system
Martha was a crazy, drunken dame
Not a nice respectable reporter
Watergate shows how nothing’s changed
(except for a few big shot somewhere)

Martha Mitchell is supposed to get her historic due during Watergate’s Golden Anniversary commercialization, She will be played by Julia Roberts in an eight-episode Netflix show called “Gaslit.” On NPR’the other day, Ailsa Chang devoted eight minutes of All Things Considered  to an interview with Robbie Pickering, “the creator and showrunner of Gaslit,” who, she said, “knows the history.” Excerpts follow:

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Martha Mitchell) I decided long ago that I will say how I feel. And if that does not conform to the president’s message, so be it. If that gets me banned off Air Force One, I will fly commercial.

CHANG: Let me ask you, out of all the characters in Watergate, what drew you in the most about Martha Mitchell?

PICKERING: The duality, and it’s just very complex. And I’ve always been fascinated with it. And Martha being the hero she was, she started out as really complicit in a lot of the things Nixon did. And she started speaking out because actually she was just always jealous of the pull Nixon had on her husband, John Mitchell, who was his campaign manager and attorney general. And she was really jealous of it. And that’s really where the genesis of her speaking out about Watergate came from. And it came from this selfish place, and it came from as selfish a place as her complicity did, but it was heroic.

CHANG: Why do you think Martha Mitchell’s story has sort of disappeared from the mainstream retellings of the Watergate scandal?

PICKERING: I wish I had a better answer for you than the fact that it’s just she’s a woman, and she was an alcoholic and a complicated woman. I mean, one of the exciting things about seeing Julia Roberts play this character is she’s not – you know, she’s not a typical good guy. She – I mean, if I met Martha Mitchell at a party – I always said this to my friend Amelia, who worked on the show with me – if I met Martha Mitchell at a party, I’d probably immediately be like, get that person away from me (laughter). She’s toxic.

Martha Mitchell was not “toxic.” She was a Southern belle, feisty, and fatally devoted to her brute of a husband. If Pickering really knew the history, he could have answered Chang’s question: Martha Mitchell was excluded from the story by the executives and top editors of the Washington Post, who wanted all the credit for reporting it.

Remember Paula Broadwell?

While we’re on the subject of forgotten whistleblowers, let us pause to remember Paula Broadwell’s assertion that two prisoners were being held at the CIA “annex” near the consulate in Benghazi at the time of the assault that left Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans dead. (This happened fewer than 10 years ago. Struggle against political amnesia!)

As explained on CounterPunch at the time, Broadwell was speaking at a University of Denver alumni symposium, promoting “All In,” her aptly named biography of Gen. David Petraeus. (He was schtupping her.) Her bombshell came in response to a question from the audience concerning Benghazi: “I don’t know if a lot you have heard this, but the CIA annex had actually taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to get those prisoners back. That’s still being vetted.”

The startling comment was not ignored by Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, who provided by far the most informative coverage of the Benghazi nightmare. In a piece on the Fox website Nov. 12, 2012, Griffin and Adam Housley reported:

“Biographer Paula Broadwell could be facing questions about whether she revealed classified information about the Libya attack that she was privy to due to her relationship with then-CIA Director David Petraeus… A well-placed Washington source confirms to Fox News that there were Libyan militiamen being held at the CIA annex in Benghazi and that their presence was being looked at as a possible motive for the staged attack on the consulate and annex that night.

“According to multiple intelligence sources who have served in Benghazi, there were more than just Libyan militia members who were held and interrogated by CIA contractors at the CIA annex in the days prior to the attack. Other prisoners from additional countries in Africa and the Middle East were brought to this location.

“The Libya annex was the largest CIA station in North Africa, and two weeks prior to the attack, the CIA was preparing to shut it down. Most prisoners, according to British and American intelligence sources, had been moved two weeks earlier.

“The CIA, though, categorically denied these allegations, saying: ‘The CIA has not had detention authority since January 2009, when Executive Order 13491 was issued. Any suggestion that the agency is still in the detention business is uninformed and baseless.’”

So, thanks to Fox News we know that the “annex” near the consulate in Benghazi was actually the largest CIA station in North Africa (you’d think the largest would be in Egypt) and that the CIA was hurriedly relocating prisoners prior to the attack on the embassy. Many of the Libyan rebels whom the US government had armed to overthrow Qaddafi (at the urging of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, among others) turned out to hate US Americans.

Given that the CIA was holding prisoners in Benghazi, the goal of the attack on the consulate was apparently an attempt to free them, or payback for their detention.

Another Amnesia Case

After Chesa Boudin was recalled by San Francisco voters last week, Tim Redmond, editor of 48hills.org (the online ghost of the Bay Guardian), wrote that Boudin had faced unprecedented bias from the San Francisco media. Ross Mirkarimi, the former sheriff, remarked, “To the San Francisco left, it’s as if Terence Hallinan never happened.” In a diplomatic email Mirkarimi  reminded Redmond, “No other DA in modern history, including Boudin, had received more above-the-fold headlines from the Chronicle and negative hits from the media than Terence.”

Mirakarimi noted something Terence had going for him (and Boudin did not):  the Bay Guardian itself. Hallinan also had the ardent backing of the Independent, a twice-weekly paper owned by the Fang family and featuring a column by Warren Hinckle, a strong Hallinan partisan. It was distributed free on the West Side of the city and undoubtedly brought in some Irish and Asian votes for America’s first progressive DA.

Hallinan also benefited from the grateful support of the nascent medical marijuana movement –a key source of money and doorbell ringers. Today there is no movement, only The Industry, and its leaders were not into contributing to Chesa Boudin.

This from a disjointed memoir I wrote about my stint as Hallinan’s press secretary:

Hallinan’s defining act as a progressive DA was his endorsement of Proposition 215, the ballot initiative by which California voters legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996. California’s other 57 DAs opposed Prop 215, as did every police chief and sheriff in the state, the attorney general, Senators Feinstein and Boxer, President Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, even the beloved ex-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD.  In 2000 Terence was the only DA to endorse Proposition 36, the treatment-not-incarceration initiative.

The sad truth is that the “progressive” changes Hallinan introduced at the Hall of Justice —diversity in hiring, drug court, mentor court, communiky courts, the first-offender prostitution program, creation of an elder-abuse unit, zealous prosecution of domestic violence cases, to name a half dozen—  could not begin to reverse the escalating social breakdown on the streets of San Francisco. His job was to enforce the law as written. All a “progressive” DA could do, really, was try to give a break to as many offenders who deserved a break as possible.

Soon after Boudin took office Mirkarimi shared with him some tactical lessons he’d learned as Hallinan’s campaign manager, but he doesn’t think his advice was heeded. “How we relay progressive history is vital to the benefit of future leaders,” he reminded Redmond.

Mirkarimi thinks Mayor London Breed is likely to appoint a supervisor to take over the DA’s office —enabling her to name that supe’s successor. Will anything change?

When New York’s Reform Democrats finally prevailed over Tammany Hall in 1961, the great Murray Kempton watched the returns at Carmine DeSapio’s HQ. Leaving that night, he “walked into the streets and noticed that there were no slums anymore, and no landlords, and the age of Pericles had begun because we were rid of Carmine DeSapio. One had to walk carefully to avoid being stabbed by the lillies bursting through the pavement.”