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Profile: Martha Mitchell
Martha Mitchell was a participant or observer in the following events:
Frank Wills, the security guard who discovers the taped doors and alerts the DC police. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Five burglars (see June 17, 1972) are arrested at 2:30 a.m. while breaking in to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Headquarters offices in Washington’s Watergate hotel and office complex; the DNC occupies the entire sixth floor. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Discovery - They are surprised at gunpoint by three plainclothes officers of the DC Metropolitan Police. Two ceiling panels have been removed from the secretary’s office, which is adjacent to that of DNC chairman Lawrence O’Brien. It is possible to place a surveillance device above those panels that could monitor O’Brien’s office. The five suspects, all wearing surgical gloves, have among them two sophisticated voice-activated surveillance devices that can monitor conversations and telephone calls alike; lock-picks, door jimmies, and an assortment of burglary tools; and $2,300 in cash, most of it in $100 bills in sequence. They also have a walkie-talkie, a shortwave receiver tuned to the police band, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35mm cameras, and three pen-sized tear gas guns. Near to where the men are captured is a file cabinet with two open drawers; a DNC source speculates that the men might have been preparing to photograph the contents of the file drawers.
Guard Noticed Taped Door - The arrests take place after a Watergate security guard, Frank Wills, notices a door connecting a stairwell with the hotel’s basement garage has been taped so it will not lock; the guard removes the tape, but when he checks ten minutes later and finds the lock taped once again, the guard calls the police. The police find that all of the stairwell doors leading from the basement to the sixth floor have been similarly taped to prevent them from locking. The door leading from the stairwell to the DNC offices had been jimmied. During a search of the offices, one of the burglars leaps from behind a desk and surrenders. [Washington Post, 6/18/1972] The FBI agents responding to the burglary are initially told that the burglars may have been attempting to plant a bomb in the offices. The “bomb” turns out to be surveillance equipment. [O.T. Jacobson, 7/5/1974 ]
Last Mission for Martinez - One of the burglars, Cuban emigre and CIA agent Eugenio Martinez, will recall the burglary. They have already successfully burglarized a psychiatrist’s office in search of incriminating material on Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (see September 9, 1971), and successfully bugged the DNC offices less than a month previously (see May 27-28, 1972), but Martinez is increasingly ill at ease over the poor planning and amateurish behavior of his colleagues (see Mid-June 1972). This will be his last operation, he has decided. Team leader E. Howard Hunt, whom Martinez calls by his old code name “Eduardo,” is obviously intrigued by the material secured from the previous burglary, and wants to go through the offices a second time to find more. Martinez is dismayed to find that Hunt has two operations planned for the evening, one for the DNC and one for the campaign offices of Democratic candidate George McGovern. Former CIA agent and current Nixon campaign security official James McCord (see June 19, 1972), the electronics expert of the team, is equally uncomfortable with the rushed, almost impromptu plan. Hunt takes all of the burglars’ identification and puts it in a briefcase. He gives another burglar, Frank Sturgis, his phony “Edward J. Hamilton” ID from his CIA days, and gives each burglar $200 in cash to bribe their way out of trouble. Interestingly, Hunt tells the burglars to keep the keys to their hotel rooms. Martinez later writes: “I don’t know why. Even today, I don’t know. Remember, I was told in advance not to ask about those things.”
Taping the Doors - McCord goes into the Watergage office complex, signs in, and begins taping the doors to the stairwells from the eighth floor all the way to the garage. After waiting for everyone to leave the offices, the team prepares to enter. Gonzalez and Sturgis note that the tape to the basement garage has been removed. Martinez believes the operation will be aborted, but McCord disagrees; he convinces Hunt and the other team leader, White House aide G. Gordon Liddy, to continue. It is McCord’s responsibility to remove the tape once the burglars are inside, but he fails to do so. The team is well into the DNC offices when the police burst in. “There was no way out,” Martinez will recall. “We were caught.” Barker is able to surreptitiously advise Hunt, who is still in the hotel, that they have been discovered. Martinez will later wonder if the entire second burglary might have been “a set-up or something like that because it was so easy the first time. We all had that feeling.” The police quickly find the burglars’ hotel keys and then the briefcase containing their identification. As they are being arrested, McCord, who rarely speaks and then not above a whisper, takes charge of the situation. He orders everyone to keep their mouths shut. “Don’t give your names,” he warns. “Nothing. I know people. Don’t worry, someone will come and everything will be all right. This thing will be solved.” [Harper's, 10/1974; Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/7/2007]
'Third-Rate Burglary' - White House press secretary Ron Ziegler will respond to allegations that the White House and the Nixon presidential campaign might have been involved in the Watergate burglary by calling it a “third-rate burglary attempt,” and warning that “certain elements may try to stretch this beyond what it is.” [Washington Post, 5/1/1973] The Washington Post chooses, for the moment, to cover it as a local burglary and nothing more; managing editor Howard Simons says that it could be nothing more than a crime committed by “crazy Cubans.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 19]
CIA Operation? - In the weeks and months to come, speculation will arise as to the role of the CIA in the burglary. The Nixon White House will attempt to pin the blame for the Watergate conspiracy on the CIA, an attempt forestalled by McCord (see March 19-23, 1973). In a 1974 book on his involvement in the conspiracy, McCord will write: “The Watergate operation was not a CIA operation. The Cubans may have been misled by others into believing that it was a CIA operation. I know for a fact that it was not.” Another author, Carl Oglesby, will claim otherwise, saying that the burglary is a CIA plot against Nixon. Former CIA officer Miles Copeland will claim that McCord led the burglars into a trap. Journalist Andrew St. George will claim that CIA Director Richard Helms knew of the break-in before it occurred, a viewpoint supported by Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, who will tell St. George that McCord is a “double agent” whose deliberate blunders led to the arrest of the burglars. No solid evidence of CIA involvement in the Watergate conspiracy has so far been revealed. [Spartacus Schoolnet, 8/2007]
Entity Tags: Nixon administration, Howard Simons, Lawrence O’Brien, James McCord, Martha Mitchell, Richard M. Nixon, Richard Helms, Washington Post, Ron Ziegler, George S. McGovern, Miles Copeland, G. Gordon Liddy, John Mitchell, Frank Sturgis, Carl Oglesby, Bob Woodward, Andrew St. George, Central Intelligence Agency, Carl Bernstein, Democratic National Committee, Daniel Ellsberg, E. Howard Hunt, Eugenio Martinez, Frank Wills
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate, Elections Before 2000
Martha Mitchell. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon campaign director John Mitchell, makes an unexpected phone call to UPI reporter Helen Thomas. Mrs. Mitchell is initially calm and even a bit sad, but when Thomas brings up the subject of Watergate, Mrs. Mitchell becomes agitated. She is “sick of the whole business,” she says, and adds: “I’ve given John an ultimatum. I’m going to leave him unless he gets out of the campaign. I’m sick and tired of politics. Politics is a dirty business.” [Thomas, 1999, pp. 210-211] Suddenly she screams, “You just get away—get away!” and the line goes dead. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 508] Three days later she calls Thomas again and asserts that she is a political prisoner in her own home. “I’m not going to stand for all of those dirty things that go on,” she shouts. “If you could see me, you wouldn’t believe it. I’m black and blue.” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward believes that Mrs. Mitchell might be an unexpected fount of information about her husband’s inner dealings in the Watergate conspiracy, but when he interviews her in September, she will reveal nothing of import. [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 92-95] In October 1972, W. Mark Felt, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s FBI background source (see May 31, 2005), says of Mrs. Mitchell, “She knows nothing, apparently, but that doesn’t mean she won’t talk.” [Bernstein and Woodward, 1974, pp. 133]
The Democratic National Convention, held to nominate George S. McGovern as the Democratic presidential candidate, is chaotic at best. The nomination of McGovern’s running mate is especially troublesome, as recalcitrant and sometimes obstreporous delegates and party officials nominate 39 separate candidates for vice president, including Martha Mitchell (see June 22-25, 1972) and China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong. McGovern and the party officials finally settle on freshman senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO)—after McGovern goes through 24 separate possibilities who turn him down one after the other. Because of the fractious and time-consuming proceedings, McGovern does not make his speech accepting the nomination until 3 a.m. EST. [Reeves, 2001, pp. 513]
H. R. Haldeman testifying to Congress in July 1973. Haldeman’s testimony was damaging to all four defendants. [Source: Bettmann / Corbis]Former Nixon aides John Ehrlichman, H. R. Haldeman, and John Mitchell, along with former Mitchell aide Robert Mardian, are convicted of various Watergate-related crimes, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, fraud, and perjury. Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Mitchell receive sentences of two to eight years in prison; Mardian will be given a sentence of ten months to three years. They immediately appeal their convictions on the grounds that they could not receive a fair trial because of the massive publicity surrounding Watergate. This was the same argument President Nixon’s lawyers used to influence President Ford’s decision to pardon Nixon (see September 8, 1974). The appeals court will reject the contention. [New York Times, 2/16/1999; Werth, 2006, pp. 334]
Ehrlichman Asks for Leniency - All four will write letters to Judge John Sirica asking for leniency in sentencing. The only letter that is made public is Ehrlichman’s; he writes of his “profound regret” for his role in the Watergate conspiracy, and adds: “I have been found to be a perjurer. No reversal on appeal can remove the stigma.” Ehrlichman asks that he be allowed to spend his sentence working with the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, using his legal talents to help them with land-use problems. Sirica will ignore the letter in his sentencing. Sirica will also ignore Haldeman’s argument that he only did the bidding of his boss, President Nixon, and that since Nixon never served jail time, neither should Haldeman. Mitchell, mired in divorce proceedings from his wife, says of the sentence: “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell.” [Time, 3/3/1975]
'Abdicated My Moral Judgments' - Reflecting on his conviction and his conduct during the Nixon years, Ehrlichman will say in 1977: “I abdicated my moral judgments and turned them over to somebody else. And if I had any advice for my kids, it would be never—to never, ever—defer your moral judgments to anybody: your parents, your wife, anybody.” [New York Times, 2/16/1999]
Following his revelatory apology and roundabout admission of guilt in his interview with David Frost (see April 15, 1977), Richard Nixon says that everything has come together to one single, inescapable conclusion. “I let the American people down, and I have to carry that burden with me the rest of my life. My political life is over. I will never yet and never again have an opportunity to serve in any official capacity.” James Reston, Jr, a member of Frost’s research team, later writes that this admission is “the final success of David Frost’s interviews. The danger that this encounter would lead to Nixon’s rehabilitation (see April 6, 1977) had been smothered. His political and personal corruption had been demonstrated. His personality had been exposed. With recognition, with acknowledgment, with acceptance of his guilt, he was a different man now.” As recently as three weeks earlier, he had spoken confidently of his intention to return to public life. That would never happen now.
Anti-Climax - In a scripted television drama, Nixon’s cathartic admission of guilt would have been the final scene. In reality, Nixon and Frost have another twenty minutes of interview time. True to form, as Reston will write, “Not a minute after he accepted responsibility for his own actions, his natural venality asserted itself.” Nixon revisits his claims of persecution by implacably hateful political enemies, and of his own victimization. He even drags Martha Mitchell (see June 22-25, 1972), the recently deceased wife of former campaign chairman John Mitchell, in to share in the blame—according to Nixon, because Mrs. Mitchell was “emotionally disturbed,” she distracted her husband at key times during the Nixon re-election campaign and therefore she is a root cause of the Watergate conspiracy. Reston will call this accusation “tasteless and lowbrow… ghoulish [and] revolting.” (After this story appears in the press, Mrs. Mitchell’s home town of Little Rock, Arkansas, decides to erect a monument of her as a heroine of Watergate.) The interview ends on a final macabre moment, with Frost delicately asking if Nixon had ever considered suicide. “I’m not the suicidal type,” he replies. “I really ought to be. If [I were], I’d have to be like a cat, I’d’a committed suicide a dozen times.” [Reston, 2007, pp. 158-160]
Rehabilitation? - Nixon biographer Conrad Black writes in 2007 that Nixon’s strategy was to rehabilitate himself by admitting his mistakes while refusing to admit to any criminal behavior: “He also knew, but Frost did not, that the first stage in his planned moral renaissance was to resist precisely the desire Frost expressed: that he confess wrongdoing so he could be forgiven. Nixon did not want to be forgiven; he wanted the country to agonize over whether it had unfairly treated him. Apologizing and being forgiven was the easy way out for America, but Nixon wasn’t interested in providing an effortless exit from the moral dilemma he posed to his countrymen.” [Guardian, 9/7/2007] After the interviews, Frost will say that he does not believe Nixon wanted to use the interviews as a way to re-enter public life. [Guardian, 5/27/1977]
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