Finding truth in Martha’s madness

Forty years ago today, the House Judiciary Committee recommended that President Richard M. Nixon be impeached and removed from office. The impeachment proceedings emanated out of a series of political scandals collectively remembered as Watergate.

The Watergate scandal first became public following the June 17, 1972, break-in at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate apartment-hotel complex at Washington, D.C. A group of men linked to the Nixon White House were charged with the crime. Nixon vociferously denied involvement with the break-in, but several of his staff members were eventually implicated in an illegal cover-up and forced out of office. In the government investigations that followed, Nixon’s so-called “enemies list” and the malevolent machinations of his campaign organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, were revealed. Perhaps most damning of all was the revelation of secretly taped conversations between the president and his aides. Nixon initially refused to release the tapes, citing executive privilege and national security interests, but a judge soon ordered that the tapes be turned over to investigators. In true Nixonian fashion, the White House provided some but not all of the tapes, including one from which a portion of the conversation appeared to have been erased.

History well records virtually every angle and aspect of the Watergate scandal and associated fall of Nixon. For those of us in Southeast Arkansas, the most interesting player in this political drama of Greek proportions was not the president. Rather it was the wife of U. S. Attorney General John Mitchell. Mitchell had been nominated to that post after serving as Nixon’s 1968 campaign manager. His outspoken wife, Martha, a Pine Bluff native, is often credited with being the prime mover in exposing the Watergate affair.

As Nixon himself once quipped, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Martha Mitchell provides for us a lesson in courage — courage in the face of tremendous odds; courage that demanded a heavy personal price; courage that brought down one of the most powerful men in history.

It was easy to disbelieve Mitchell. She was notoriously outspoken. As Brenda J. Hall writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, “Whenever (Mitchell’s) first name was mentioned, everyone knew who she was. She shared her views on everything: the Vietnam War, school busing, nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court and more. She was known to call reporters at all hours of the day to comment on particular issues, including relaying information about the Nixon administration’s corrupt activities.”

The administration had a deep interest in discrediting Mitchell. Of course, the easy route was simply to have her pronounced mentally ill. After all, the stories she told were fantastical. Mitchell even claimed that she had been drugged and imprisoned in a California hotel room in an effort to keep her quiet.

In a great ironic twist of fate, Mitchell was not delusional. Despite her large personality, her accusations were founded and true. This led psychologist Brendan Maher to coin the term “the Martha Mitchell effect” for individuals who are misdiagnosed as being mentally ill because the truths they reveal strain the limits of probability.

Others have dubbed Mitchell the “Cassandra of Washington,” a reference to the prophetic figure from Greek mythology.

On this 40th anniversary of the Judiciary Committee’s referral for impeachment, it’s fitting that we remember Mitchell’s part in the sorry narrative. Just as the mythological Cassandra foretold the destruction of ancient Troy, so too did Mitchell see the impending doom for the Nixon White House. Their stories remind us that ever so often the “mad” among us might bear a little hearing.