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Watergate—Cracks in the Coverup

Watergate—Cracks in the Coverup

by William H. Benson

April 4, 2019

     Martha Mitchell was the flamboyant and outspoken wife of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s former Attorney General and then, in the summer of 1972, the head of Nixon’s re-election campaign. After police apprehended five burglars inside the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C on June 17, 1972, Martha suspected that Nixon and her husband were involved.

     For one thing, Martha knew James McCord, one of the five burglars, because he had worked as her daughter’s bodyguard and her driver. Martha knew that McCord and Mitchell knew each other, and she had also overheard her husband’s phone calls. She put the coverup plan together before anyone else did.

     Martha said, in reference to her husband, “I love him very much. He loves me because I’ve stood up for him. But he is defending the president, who planned the whole thing. I’m under surveillance day and night. I’m no fool.” Martha’s loose lips terrified White House officials.

     Later that summer, a White House operative named Stephen B. King detained Martha for twenty-four hours in a hotel room in Newport Beach, California, and refused to let her have access to adequate food or to a telephone. She was hysterical and said that she was “kept a prisoner.”

     When Martha tried to call out for help, King yanked the cord out of the wall. When she tried to escape through a window, she cut her hand on the glass. When the doctor arrived to stitch her wound, he and King held her down long enough for the doctor to give her a tranquilizing shot in her hip.

     Once back at her home in New York City, she called a White House reporter named Helen Thomas and said, “They’re not going to get away with this, Helen.” She then wrote a letter to Parade magazine and revealed all she had endured in that hotel room.

     The White House proceeded to smear Martha’s reputation, saying that she was “insane,” “a gossip and a drunk,” that “she needed institutionalized,” and that no one should believe her tall tales. It was “a sexist campaign to discredit a woman who knew too much.”

     Martha did drink, she did spread rumors, she was hysterical, but she was right about Nixon. She said, “I will not let these lies be told.”

     After James McCord appeared before Judge John Sirica, and he realized that he may face a stiff prison sentence, he fired off a letter to the judge on March 19, 1973, and said,

     “There was political pressure applied to the defendants to plead guilty and remain silent. Perjury occurred during the trial in matters highly material to the government’s case, others involved in the Watergate operation were not identified during the trial, and Watergate was not a CIA operation.”

     Two days later, on March 21, 1973, John Dean III, Nixon’s legal counsel, confronted Nixon in the Oval Office and told him that “Watergate is a cancer on his presidency,” but Nixon refused to back away from his coverup.

     Dean said, “The day I told Mr. Nixon there was a cancer on his presidency was the day I met the real Nixon. I knew I had to break rank.”

     On April 6, 1973, Dean hired an attorney and pleaded for leniency in exchange for his testimony before the Senate Watergate committee. He later said, “Nixon thought I should lie for him. I should fall on the sword. I should go to jail, so he can continue to be who he wants to be. I didn’t see it that way.”

     For five days, beginning on June 25, 1973, Dean testified before the Senate committee. His prepared statement was some 60,000 words, and over 80 million people watched his testimony. He implicated himself, John Mitchell, and President Nixon in the coverup. Nixon denied each of Dean’s accusations.

     On October 19, 1973, Dean pleaded guilty to “a single felony county of conspiracy to obstruct justice and defraud the United States,” and the judge reduced his sentence to time served, four months.

     Who do you believe? A talkative woman like Martha Mitchell, a burglar like James McCord, a polished White House legal counsel like John Dean, or the President of the United States? At the time, Republican party loyalists believed Nixon, but others were convinced Nixon was lying.

     Ever since, mental health professionals have labeled those who appear and act delusional but speak the truth the “Martha Mitchell effect.”

     Martha and John Mitchell separated in 1973. It was rumored she threw her husband’s clothes out of the window into the street below. She passed away on May 31, 1976, at fifty-seven, of multiple myeloma, but she lived to see Nixon resign in disgrace on August 8, 1974. Her estranged husband served nineteen months in prison.

     In 2017, President Trump appointed Stephen B. King Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

     Next time in these pages, “Watergate—the White House Tapes.”