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Hero or Villain? Watch Martha Mitchell Crack Watergate

Our media critic Barbara Lippert says it's a hoot and a heartbreak to watch Julia Roberts as the outspoken Martha Mitchell in the series "Gaslit."

“A lot of women your age suffer from paranoid episodes,” the doctor says as he examines an elegant but bruised woman of 53. “Maybe time away from your phone is just what you need, Mrs. Mitchell.”

That moment of goosebumpy evil  (oh no, they’re all in on it!) comes courtesy of Gaslit, a limited series that since April has been streaming on STARZ.  It spotlights Martha Mitchell, the larger-than-life, outspoken wife of Nixon’s then-Attorney General John Mitchell. Now an almost-forgotten figure who died of cancer in 1976, she was the first person within the administration to accuse Nixon of being responsible for the Watergate break-in and call for his resignation.

Sadly, she was branded “a loudmouth drunk,” an “effing bitch” and effectively destroyed for her efforts.

Based on the first episode of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast from 2017, which first revived the Martha story, Gaslit does something new: it serves up Watergate from a fresh lens, largely a woman’s point-of-view.

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The Watergate Women

Consider the title All the President’s Men, brought to us by those swaggering journos, Woodward and Bernstein. Few of us realize how much of Watergate history was written by men, for men, and about men. Whereas women were either set up to take the blame, like Rose Mary Woods and her heavy foot, or relegated to the sidelines. In Martha’s case, she was literally held prisoner and silenced.

The behind-the-scenes crimes and cover-ups in the Nixon White House offer an eerily relevant window into the Trump White House.

Though Gaslit has gotten some mixed reviews (for being too ambitious with too many storylines) I’d still give the eight-episodes five stars. The series is brilliantly written, with inspired casting and acting. And the production values are sumptuous. If you have a yearning burning to see meticulous recreations of early ‘70s hostess gowns, fancy barware, or autumn-harvest-colored kitchens, it’s the show for you.

I love that Gaslit does several things at once: It highlights little known figures of the era, for one. But while supplying the dialogue for the behind-the-scenes crimes and cover-ups in the Nixon White House, it also offers an eerily and newly relevant window into the Trump White House as shown in testimony at the Jan. 6th Congressional hearings.

We also get introduced to the two FBI guys investigating the break-in, based on real people.  One of them says to his pro-Nixon partner, “We thought this was a sophisticated operation. What if we’re wrong? What if they’re just morons?” Imagine.

Access to Power

Martha Mitchell gaslit

The real Martha Mitchell, who Nixon blamed for the Watergate scandal.

Gaslit has a B-story line, centering on that newly married couple, John and Maureen Dean. Played perfectly by Betty Gilpin, platinum-haired Mo is shown as the branding brains behind Dean’s testimony, and his light suit, tortoise shell frames, and general likeability. Even though he was a felon, she told him, “You have a PR problem, not a legal problem. Tell the truth in a way that America likes you.” Through the Dean character, the writers take a stab at answering that profound and eternal question: how could a group of high-ranking, professional men surrounding the President be so complicit and morally blind?

The short answer: access to power.  In the show, Dean later offers a monologue, almost in the form of  a tone poem, about the seat cushions on Air Force One. In a word, they’re dreamy. He feared getting exiled from them.

Meanwhile, Julia Roberts, who also acted as an executive producer on the series, inhabits the quick wit and needy soul of Arkansan social climber Martha Mitchell, with her over-the-top outfits, bouffant hair, Queen Bee personality, and all. A life-of the-party type, always craving attention, she developed a habit of making gin-and-tonic fueled late-night calls to the D.C. press.

Other Cabinet wives were rarely seen or heard. But with her fast mind, a Southern accent (the press dubbed her “The Mouth of the South”) and entertaining outlook, Martha was a frequent guest on talk and TV game shows at the time, and even appeared on “Laugh-In”, the comedy show known for Richard Nixon’s famously rhythm-free delivery of “Sock It to Me.” Martha was certainly funnier than Nixon, and after him became the second most sought after speaker on the Republican circuit.

And yes, Roberts does look like the taller, finer-boned, movie-star version of the real Martha.  Still, it’s a hoot and a heartbreak just to watch this poignant character, both hero and villain at a time of few roles for women, navigate the world.

Meanwhile, under artful layers of fleshy prosthetics that make him unrecognizable, Sean Penn morphs into John Mitchell, Martha’s morally-challenged attorney general husband, and the head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP). Penn’s performance is a tour-de-force.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

The narrative makes clear that their mutual attraction was real in the beginning of their marriage, but once John became Attorney General and they moved to D.C., the power-couple started falling apart. Martha got jealous of John’s abject devotion to Nixon, when she knew he was unworthy of such dog-like loyalty, and started leaking about the “whole rotten lot of them.” One great Martha quip: “The only thing that means dick to Dick is more glory for Dick.” That’s it in a nutshell.

At one point Martha was held captive in her hotel suite so she wouldn’t talk to the press.

The heart of the story emerges after John surprises Martha (and their 11-year old daughter, Marti, the neglected kid who sits in a closet and drinks martinis while her parents entertain at their Watergate apartment) with a vacation trip to Newport Beach, California. While there, word of the first Watergate burglary hit the news. As the one who gave the order to the “plumbers’ to break into the Democratic National Committee office, Mitchell had to return early to D.C. to cover his tracks, leaving Martha alone in California.

Since Martha would recognize one of the names of the henchmen, and figure out how he was linked to the President, John hired a guard and told him to keep her away from all telephones, TV and newspapers. This resulted in holding her captive in her hotel suite. Martha did not do well in captivity, and eventually her guard, Steven King (who most recently was Trump’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic) tackled her, threw her on the bed and had a doctor administer a tranquilizing shot in her rear end, as if she were some big game they were hunting. At one point when trying to escape, she put her hand through a glass door and injured her wrist. The subsequent pain launched her habit of adding a fistful of pain pills to her daily booze.

But she would not be quieted. She insisted on telling the truth about administration’s dirty tricks because she saw that Nixon would try to pin all his criminality on her husband.

Channeling Scarlett O’Hara 

But as with many people who get close to power, Martha was a flawed character, a Southern strategy segregationist, an anti-Semite, a selfish woman who abandoned her first son. Her father was a grifter and an alcoholic who abandoned the family, so there was a steely, Scarlett O’Hara-like “I’ll never go hungry again!” part to her makeup

John’s loyalty remained with Dick, along with a good percentage of the country. When Martha and John traveled, men would scream, “Hey pal, handle your wife.” At home, they descended into full George-and-Martha territory from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He often called her a joke and a pig.

Years later, Nixon blamed Martha Mitchell for Watergate almost entirely.

As the cover-up escalated, and Nixon fired Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and his other lap dogs, Republicans in the Senate and Congress eventually talked him into resigning, and the rest is history. Most of Nixon’s staff served prison terms, including 18-months for John Mitchell. Whereas John Dean served only four months. But when Dean asked Maureen why she thought that he got off easy, she responds, “Because you’re good looking.”

Years later, Nixon blamed Martha Mitchell for Watergate almost entirely. “I’m convinced there would be no Watergate without Martha Mitchell,” he told David Frost on his TV special in 1977. “Because John wasn’t mindin’ the store. He was practically out of his mind over Martha in the spring of 1972.”

And there was Martha’s prescience again about how Nixon would pin everything on her husband.

The relevance to the Trump White House is uncanny. While Cassidy Hutchinson’s breakthrough testimony has turned the tide of the Congressional hearings, the former President called her a “a wack job” and “social climber” with “serious mental problems.” The same things exactly were said about Martha.


Gaslit ends with the true story of Mitchell’s 1976 funeral in her Arkansas home town. With John Mitchell, her son, and daughter in attendance, the camera pans to a big white flower arrangement sent there by a fan, an admiral in California. Against a spray of foliage on an easel, white chrysanthemums spelled out: “Martha was right.”

Damn right.

Read More: Numb and Number: What to Make of Ivanka’s Testimony

By Barbara Lippert


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