Review: Martha Mitchell is a name from 70s American politics that was recently the subject of a series “Gaslit,” starring Julia Roberts as the controversial and tragic political wife. A documentary short titled “The Martha Mitchell Effect” narrates her story from archives of tape recordings during the Nixon presidency and TV news clippings. Her journey emerges as a tragedy that shows the unfortunate end truth-tellers can suffer in the murky world of politics.
Martha Mitchell, who spoke with a distinct Southern accent (common in states from Southern USA) was married to John Mitchell, the Attorney General to President Nixon. He led the campaigns to re-elect Nixon in 1968 and 1972 and was convicted in the Watergate Scandal. The infamous CREEP (Committee to Re-elect The President) had John, his wife Martha, and a couple of people very close to Nixon, in-charge of managing the presidential campaigns. This is the team that led the bugging of the offices of the opposition party, and later, journalists, political advisers, and even, department heads at the White House, creating the biggest political scandal ever to hit the USA.
Directors Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy have put together rare unseen footage from Mitchell’s personal archives and audio as well as visual records to establish the courage behind the actions of this political wife. Initially, a huge supporter and campaigner of Nixon, Martha was popular as a loud-mouthed, glamorous social presence in Washington’s power circles. However, when the dirty tricks in this administration began to grow, Nixon feared Martha’s outspokenness would create huge trouble. He was prophetic. After her husband left her in California, virtually locking her down in a hotel suite when news of Watergate broke, she realized his entanglement in this political conspiracy. Ever since, she spoke out against Nixon, and called out her husband and closest allies of the President, earning hate, humiliation, and finally admiration of the American people.
The documentary is powerful and insightful as it features the voices of the men that were involved in Watergate and were convicted (McGruder and Haldeman among others), as well as interviews with leading journalists that tracked Martha and Watergate, to reflect the level of political corruption during this period. It also serves a greater purpose – of shining a light on the need for transparency and accountability amongst politicians. Had it not been for Martha Mitchell’s loud and constant calling out, the Nixon presidency might have gotten away with its manipulations and games.
Coupled with relentless news coverage from Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post, Martha’s speaking out kept the pressure on the White House to respond to uncomfortable questions about the Watergate scandal. As we live in contemporary times where political extremism has dominated democracies and elections, the impact of no accountability emerges through Martha’s tragic story.
At the behest of the president, Martha was checked into a mental health institution and she died lonely and broken in spirit. John Mitchell divorced her. She found little emotional support during her last days. But her contribution led to the coining of the term, The Martha Mitchell Effect, in psychology. It means the tendency to mark someone out as delusional at first, only to find out later that the person was speaking the truth. “The Martha Mitchell Effect” therefore, is essential viewing not just for those interested in politics, but for everyone interested in human behaviour.