She was the whistleblower history ignored - here is what really happened.
"Follow the money." Generations of journalists have taken this advice to heart. It was delivered by the Watergate source, Deep Throat, to the Bob Woodward character in the 1970s film classic All the President's Men. The phrase was pure fiction, but retains its power. You have to wonder, though: why didn't all those clever men think to "follow the women"?
When Martha Mitchell, the brash, big-haired motormouth wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, tried to tell a female journalist about the illegal bugging of opponents carried out by the Committee to Re-elect the President (deliciously known as Creep), the phone cord was yanked from the wall and she was restrained, drugged, beaten and held hostage in a hotel room in Los Angeles. After turning whistleblower, she was shunned as an unreliable, mentally unstable drunk and died of cancer at 57, largely abandoned. A psychologist invented the term the "Martha Mitchell effect" to describe latter-day Cassandras who speak the truth but are not believed.
An eight-part television drama starring the Hollywood power players Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchells has a fashionable name for the phenomenon, Gaslit. Or should it be gaslighted? This has sparked a whole debate in itself. But the point is that Mitchell's story has been resurrected in time for the 50th anniversary of the fateful break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972, at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
Three cheers for the feminism that is restoring Mitchell to her rightful place in history. But there are other reasons for revisiting Watergate. Comparisons with Donald Trump make the subject irresistible. Garrett Graff, author of the acclaimed Watergate: A New History, published in February, said Trump's conduct made him "curious about the last time our country confronted questions about the criminality and abuse of power by the president".
Next up is a film caper, 18½, about the infamous missing minutes of the Nixon tapes, starring Willa Fitzgerald as the loyal transcriber who stumbles on the secret. Then there is The White House Plumbers, a Sky/HBO series about E Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), the actual creeps who masterminded the break-in. Not forgetting a CNN documentary on the White House lawyer who switched sides, John Dean, played spookily well by Dan Stevens of Downton fame in Gaslit and by Domhnall Gleeson in the Sky series this autumn. Nixon-mania indeed.
Penn is under so many layers of prosthetics as the paunchy, balding John that I wanted to knock on his forehead and ask, "Sean, are you in there?" but Roberts is on fine form as Martha Mitchell, the "mouth of the South" from Arkansas, who holds him in sexual thrall. Before Watergate she was one of the most famous women in politics, known for her loud conservative politics, fondness for gossipy, late-night chats with reporters and appearances on talk shows and in glossy magazines.
There are also critics who believe the show has soft-pedalled her character — the real-life Mitchell called some of the violence in the Vietnam War "100 per cent wonderful", although this series comes when she had turned against it.
The series was inspired by an episode of Slow Burn, a Slate magazine podcast, which compared Martha to Anthony Scaramucci — Trump's fast-talking White House communications director, who lasted 11 days in the job. So I asked "the Mooch" what he made of comparisons between them. "Washington is not a swamp; it's a gold-plated hot-tub without a drain," he replied. "They rat-f*** you out of there if they think they can't control you.
"It is way worse [today] than Watergate. Politicians have decided we don't need to be the 'United' States of America and, by the way, if we're losing we don't have to play by the rules, we can subvert them." He believes Republican politicians under Nixon had a commitment to service and fidelity to the constitution earned on the battlefields of the Second World War. They forced Nixon out, but have enabled Trump. "The glue that held society together is no longer there."
I have my own fascination with the era. Mitchell, Liddy and other Watergate conspirators were sent to federal prison at Maxwell air force base in Alabama, where I grew up. We were not there at the same time, but my father, who was in the RAF, used to marvel that they would have mowed our lawn.
And few people are more obsessed by Nixon than Trump. They were pen pals in the 1980s when the young property developer thought it would be a tremendous coup to get the disgraced president to move into Trump Tower.
Pat, the former first lady, was not well enough to make the move, but Nixon twinkled: "As you can imagine, she is an expert on politics and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!"
Dean, now in his eighties and a critic of Trump, said when their correspondence was revealed: "These are two authoritarian personalities who would have a natural affinity for each other."
There is an intriguing footnote to the Nixon/Trump relationship: the former FBI agent who allegedly held Mitchell hostage was Steve King (he disputes elements of her story). He went on to become US ambassador to the Czech Republic under Trump.
And, by the way, another smart woman, the film-maker Nora Ephron, who had been married to the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, told everybody for years that the mysterious Deep Throat was Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI. Nobody believed her either.
Written by: Sarah Baxter
© The Times of London