‘Martha Mitchell Effect’ covers unlikely Watergate whistleblower

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Director Anne Alvergue profiles Martha Mitchell, the wife of former attorney general and campaign manager John Mitchell, and how she helped unravel the Nixon presidency. Credit: YouTube.

A few years after Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace, he blamed the collapse of his presidency at the feet of one woman: Martha Mitchell — the wife of his attorney general and campaign manager John Mitchell. He pointed to a “mental and emotional problem” that she had.

But the sentiment was actually a scheme manufactured to discredit her after she blew the whistle in the days following the Watergate break-in. Her claims might’ve been outlandish but she wasn’t wrong. The idea of dismissing something as a paranoid delusion when it’s in fact true is now known as “The Martha Mitchell Effect.” That’s also the title of one of the five documentary short films nominated at this year’s Oscars. 

Director Anne Alvergue says Mitchell was an outlier in the Washington D.C. political scene. “She was loud and brash and funny. And she became, as a result, very popular with the press as the only person in Nixon's orbit who would speak out. She was a very beautiful woman, but a woman of her age.”

And while Mitchell was a loyal Republican, she wasn’t afraid to speak out against the Nixon administration, on topics such as the Vietnam War. 

Alvergue says her curious nature led her to learning more about the incident through reporter Helen Thomas, with whom she frequently chatted. It all came to a head when she read an LA Times article that said her former bodyguard, James McCord, was arrested in a burglary at the Watergate Complex.