There’s a term in psychology known as the Martha Mitchell effect. A misdiagnosis of delusion in response to the patient uttering information that couldn’t possibly be true, but that turns out to be quite accurate. It’s when everyone tells you that you are crazy when you’re right the whole time. The real-life Martha Mitchell was a key player in one of the darkest chapters in White House history. A celebrity of the Nixon administration, she ended it kidnapped, beaten and bruised. With the whole world calling her crazy, her story faded. Steve King, the man that inflicted such injuries was later to be rewarded for his service with an appointment by Donald Trump to US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. This is that story.
Steve King started out as an FBI security agent, assigned to the Mitchell family. John Mitchell was the former Nixon administration Attorney General, who resigned to head up the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President (crudely nicknamed CREEP). A Watergate conspirator, he famously threatened journalist Carl Bernstein that then Washington Post publisher Katie Graham “is going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if the Watergate secrets leaked.
His wife Martha Mitchell was a celebrity of the time. “The Mouth of the South” as she was known, garnered a reputation as a socialite who loved nothing more than attending the various functions her celebrity in the Nixon administration afforded her. It was also well known that she would frequently enjoy late night chats, glass of wine in hand, with her favourite journalists to leak juicy gossip about the presidency.
It was at one of these functions on a fateful weekend in June 1972 that things began to unravel for the Mitchell’s. While they rubbed shoulders with Hollywood’s finest, four men were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington. They were, among other things, trying to install secret cameras and bugging equipment. One of these men, James McCord, had worked security for CREEP.
John Mitchell quickly put out a statement to the newspapers that McCord had once worked as a private contractor a few months prior for the committee, but nothing more. Before Martha knew a thing, he had flown back to Washington and told her to stay behind and rest. He left Steve King in charge of her, instructing he did lot let her either find out or talk about events developing in the Capitol.
Keeping Martha away from a paper proved impossible, and her husband’s press release shocked her. The subsequent investigation has taught us that McCord was not an external contractor but in fact CREEP’s Director of Security acting on the orders of Nixon and Mitchell. But these are innocent days long before any whistleblowing and investigations. No one knows this information and won’t know for a while. No one except Martha Mitchell.
Reading the newspaper, Martha instantly recognised McCord’s name. After they lost FBI protection when John resigned as AG, McCord was also her own head of security. He had regularly acted as her daughter’s driver and had even checked her phone for bugging and x-rayed the floor of her apartment after a death threat. This the chief suspect for a break in and attempted bugging in Watergate that only Martha knew had previously checked bugging for her.
King refused to let her leave her hotel room. She immediately became distrustful of what she called the campaign’s “dirty tricks”. After trying to reach her husband multiple times she warned her next call was to the press. And so, it was.
On Thursday 22nd 1972, she made a call to her favourite reporter Helen Thomas of United Press. After initially complaining about her husband and how she was going to give him an ultimatum unless he resigned from CREEP, the line went dead. Steve King rushed to the phone. Before silence Thomas could here Martha say, “You stay away!” repeatedly. King pulled the phone cord from the wall, and tackled Martha to the ground. As detailed in her biography:
“King ran out and pulled her back inside. She claimed he threw her down and kicked her.… The next day...she slipped downstairs, planning to escape, but King spotted her just as she reached a glass door. In the ensuing scuffle, Martha's left hand was cut, so badly that six stitches were required in two fingers."
Worried he was losing control, King called in Richard Nixon’s personal attorney Herb Kalmbach, who ordered Nixon’s doctor to administer a tranquilizer. King and four other men held her down while, in Martha’s own words “I was stuck in the behind with a needle”. Her biography continues;
“Before [the shot] took effect, she tried to get away, but according to Martha, King saw her dashing toward the door and ran over and slapped her across the room."
Beaten and silenced, Martha eventually did meet with a journalist days later. Veteran New York Daily News crime reporter Marcia Kramer found a “beaten woman with incredible black and blue bruises on her arms.” When the subsequent story broke that she had been held a prisoner, the Nixon campaign came out in force to discredit her, spreading rumours she had a drinking problem and marital issues.
An official Washington release even mentioned how she had failed to attend all her functions, and that her nerves were at her. Other aides spoke of a “nervous breakdown” and “poor John Mitchell’s nut wife”. That Martha stayed silent during this time did not help her case, and when she publicly called for Nixon to resign a year later (one of the first public figures to do so), she was ignored. It was not until years later when James McCord himself in the witness stand said Martha “was basically kidnapped” that her truth was finally vindicated.
King was rewarded for his actions. He was promoted to replace McCord as CREEP’s head of security, the position Mitchell claimed McCord never held. He went on to serve as chair of the Wisconsin RNC, before years later in 2017 Donald Trump nominated him to be US Ambassador to the Czech Republic.
He was questioned by three senators. Not even one asked him about the incident. The first two, Republicans Ron Johnson and Chris Murphy, both used it as an opportunity to promote King and how important the Czech Republic was in fighting Russia. The ineffective Tim Kaine, whose job as senate minority democrat would ordinarily be to ask tough questions, instead bizarrely chose to talk about Brexit. King himself has never denied what occurred, only telling journalists at the time “Neither you nor anybody else will ever get me to talk about the matters of the Mitchell family.”
Asked by reporters afterwards why no one brought up his past, senate foreign committee spokesman Sean Bartlett simply stated "After questioning him, and measuring his other qualifications and responses to questions on a range of issues, staff did not believe there was evidence or reason to delay his nomination." King now resides in Prague.
Martha Mitchell was not so lucky. She became a recluse and suffered stress, saw her daughter be turned against her by John, and soon got ill. She died of bone cancer in 1976 just four years after the incident. It is perhaps evident of how the Nixon administration treated her that a year after her death, in the famous Robert Frost interview, Nixon still lied. “I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha there’d have been no Watergate.” This after he’d been found guilty, still blaming his co-conspirators crazy wife.
She was remembered in her home town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. A local newspaper spoke of someone to whom “freedom and honesty meant more”. A bust set up in her honour features an inscription from John 8:32 “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”
This was before Woodward and Bernstein. Before Deep Throat or any of the other well documented events that led to the destruction of the carefully crafted façade Richard Nixon worked so hard to put up. Martha Mitchell was the only one who knew the truth in those early days of the largest controversy the White House has ever found itself in.
In Martha’s own words ““They were afraid of my honesty”.