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The Martha Mitchell Effect

We'll never have Watergate behind us, I hope, because in a way, it's been good. We're teaching the politicians to be straight and not crooked. 

-Martha Mitchell 

Netflix's The Martha Mitchell Effect, is a great 40-minute archival documentary on Martha Mitchellan important, but somewhat forgotten figure in the Watergate scandalThe film relies entirely on news footage, interviews and historical materials with no voice-over narration. This turns out to be a great strategy, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves. 

Martha Mitchell was an outspoken figure in Washington politics, who would later be described by journalist Bob Woodward as "the Greek chorus of the Watergate story."

She was the wife of John Mitchell, whom Richard Nixon called his "most trusted advisor." John Mitchell was Nixon's campaign chairman in 1968 and 1972. He also served as U.S. Attorney General for the Nixon administration from 1969 to 1972. 

Martha Mitchell was not a typical political wife of the time. She didn't excel at being a hostess who quietly supported her husband from behind the scenes. One newspaper headline shown in the film referred to her as "Mighty Mouth." 

She became infamous for her late night calls to journalists and Washington officials. It brought her celebrity status and she made the rounds on television. At first, the Nixon administration liked the attention Mitchell received because she was a conservative supporter who stayed on message. Soon this political machine turned on her. 

By 1972 Mitchell had an active role in the Committee for the Re-election of the President. All of that changed on the night of June 17, 1972, when there was a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C.

At the time, the Mitchells were in California at a fundraiser for the Nixon campaign. John Mitchell quickly returned to Washington to manage the fallout, but Martha Mitchell was kept behind and uninformed.

While at the hotel, she read in the newspapers that one of the people arrested for the break-in was James W. McCord. She knew him. He was a Republican consultant to the Nixon re-election campaign. He had also been her bodyguard and even taken the Mitchells' daughter to school.  

Martha Mitchell tried to get information from her husband on what was happening. She contacted famed White House press corps reporter, Helen Thomas. On the call, Thomas heard Mitchell say, "Get away, get away" before the phone was disconnected. 

As Martha Mitchell later described in an interview with David Frost, "that was the beginning of my being held a prisoner." 

The hotel doctor was summoned to treat a "hysterical" woman. He administered a tranquilizer injection while she was held down by her husband's security detail. 

In an effort to discredit her, Nixon's team painted Mitchell as an emotionally-unstable woman with the press. She continued to speak out. 

Nixon won re-election in 1972. When the Senate Watergate Committee started to investigate in 1973, Mitchell publicly pointed the finger at the White House. She called for Nixon's resignation.  

At first she defended her husband, believing he was being set up as the fall guy for Watergate. It was only later, when the Nixon White House tapes were publicly available, that she understood how much her husband had conspired against her. By then John had already left Martha and taken their daughter with him. 

Ultimately, Martha Mitchell was vindicated. Everything that she said happened to her was corroborated. 

In 1988, psychologist Dr. Brendan Maher named the process by which a medical professional misinterprets as delusional a person's real and accurate perceptions as the Martha Mitchell Effect

I really enjoyed this documentary. I think the directors, Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, made the right choice to rely on archival footage. It allowed Mitchell to speak directly to the viewer. The film is also very well edited, which is not surprising since Alvergue is an editor. The 40 minutes flew by, I could have watched more. 

By Dark Sleuth


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