How Martha Mitchell Helped Woodward and Bernstein Investigate John Mitchell

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‘Please Nail It Down’: The Untold Story of How Martha Mitchell Got Revenge on Her Husband

Martha and John Mitchell in 1971. (Bettmann Archive)
Martha and John Mitchell in 1971. (Bettmann Archive)

There was no doubt about the voice on the other end of the phone line. This nasal timbre. Sassy and sassy. Arkansas Delta undiluted.

Bob Woodward had heard that voice before. So when he answered his desk phone in the Washington Post newsroom that Sunday in the spring of 1974, he didn’t have to force himself to realize he was talking to Martha Mitchell, the wife unpredictable from President Richard Nixon’s former attorney general, the corrupt pipe. -The Smoker by John Mitchell.

Portrayed by Julia Roberts in a Starz miniseries that began airing this spring, Martha Mitchell was something of a star in Washington back then. She had style. She laughs the hardest. She piled that wonderful thick blonde hair higher and higher. At a time when men ruled almost everything, she said what she wanted and did what she wanted. She may have been married to one of Washington’s most famous men, but she refused to be defined as a “wife of” someone.

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She thought of herself as somebody. She was, as the newspapers sometimes say, “the other Martha of Washington.” The crowd in the capital called it “The Mouth of the South”. She was almost impossible to control – although her husband and his team of thugs tried.

That Sunday, Martha called Woodward with an invitation. Her husband, recently indicted for the second time in the cascading Watergate scandal, had left her, leaving their Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan. Would Woodward and her reporting partner, Carl Bernstein – she always pronounced it, incorrectly, as “bern-STINE” – like to come up and watch in her husband’s home office?

Woodward, discussing the episode at length publicly for the first time in an interview at his home in Georgetown, said he didn’t want to miss such a rare occurrence. opportunity. The sequence of events shows Mitchell at his most swaggering, but also offers insight into the reporting techniques that made Woodward and Bernstein two of the most famous journalists of the 20th century.

Woodward — that methodical former Navy man who speaks in the measured, flat effect of his Midwestern roots — is at heart a grinder, a journalistic machine that thinks from all angles. First, he had to consider his source. Martha Mitchell had a well-deserved reputation as a Washingtonian who loved talking to reporters. He had first met her three years ago earlier when, as a young journalist, he had published an article about his complaints about black smoke polluting the air near the house where they lived at the time, in a building which had not yet become synonymous with political scandal: the Watergate.

She was undeterred when she was informed that the grime was emanating from a heating plant that served the White House and the Justice Department, where her husband ruled as attorney general. When the Watergate break-in drama was in full bloom, she was initially an ardent supporter of her husband, worrying for The New York Times that sinister forces were trying to make him “the goat” of the scandal. But his mood darkens over time. She complained to the media about “dirty things” going on in Washington and threatened to leave her husband if he didn’t retire from politics.

She spent hours on the phone with reporters, including describing a bizarre scene where she says she was drugged and held against her will for three days by a staff member who worked for her husband, who was then chairman of the re-election campaign of Nixon. She certainly didn’t mind seeing her name printed. And what she said tended to verify.

“That’s the angry woman,” Woodward thought before heading to New York at Mitchell’s invitation. “But it’s a reliable angry woman. Mitchell didn’t understand the details of her husband’s involvement in Watergate, Bernstein told me, “but what she was so right about all along was the cover-up.”

Woodward also faced the not-so-small question of entering a man’s private office and rummaging through his belongings without his permission – even though he had been invited by the man’s ex-wife. This, Woodward decided, deserved a phone call to Edward Bennett Williams, the famous Post lawyer.

Williams opted for a legal concept called “constructive surrender,” Woodward told me. Since the former attorney general had left the apartment, the papers he had left in his office were no different from the papers he might have thrown in the trash. In other words, they were fair game. (After more than half a century as a journalist and having written 21 books, Woodward tells me he never rooted in a dumpster for reporting material.)

Satisfied with working with a solid source and being on a solid legal footing, Woodward and Bernstein headed to the airport and took the Eastern Air Lines shuttle to New York. When they arrived mid-afternoon, Martha Mitchell greeted them at the door of her Fifth Avenue apartment. She was holding a martini in her hand. She was “graceful” and “a bit drunk”, Bernstein recalls. Mitchell showed reporters around the well-appointed space with its floral-print sofas. Then she pointed down a long hallway. Office of John Mitchell.

“Go ahead, boys,” she told them. “Please nail it. I hope you get the bastard.

Bernstein jumped onto a chair and pulled himself up into a large crawl space at the top of the office closet. He pulled out leatherette boxes, binders and bank files, then passed them to Woodward below.

They stayed there for hours. Mitchell ordered Chinese food. Finally, they had accumulated a stack of potentially useful papers. Throughout these years, Woodward, who is an Olympic-level hoarder of his reporting finds, has kept a file of the material he gathered that afternoon and evening. He shared them with me one recent afternoon.

Most intriguing are 14 pages of handwritten notes by John Mitchell, some of which include references to a grand jury appearance. (It is unclear which one. He appeared at least twice, once in September 1972 as a fact witness and again in April 1973 when prosecutors told him he was the target of their investigation.)

The notes offer insight into Mitchell’s perception of the case against him. Mitchell wrote that a prosecutor, whom he did not name, said, “I’m really, really sorry” after Mitchell’s testimony. Mitchell speculated that the prosecutor could have apologized for the way he questioned the former attorney general.

Prosecutors pressed “very hard,” Mitchell wrote, “on moral issues,” including his failure to tell the grand jury about his encounters with G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon campaign operative who was later admitted guilty of conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping in the Watergate Breaking-in. Mitchell wrote that he also faced questions about why he hadn’t warned his “good friend” Fred LaRue – a bagman who was delivering silent money to the Watergate conspirators – not to accept d “WH” money, presumably a reference to Nixon’s White House. .

The documents provided material that informed The Post’s coverage of Watergate, but Woodward only recalls the trip producing a big scoop. The story landed on the front page of the Post in June 1974, revealing that Elmer Bobst, whom Nixon sometimes described as his “honorary father,” had written a 1971 letter to Mitchell promising that a friend would donate $100. $000 to Nixon’s campaign in exchange for help with a case pending before the Federal Trade Commission. (Mitchell was Nixon’s attorney general when Bobst’s letter was sent. He then headed the President’s Reelection Committee, or CREEP, for several months in 1972.)

By then, John Mitchell’s attorney, Bill Hundley, had figured out that Martha Mitchell had provided documents to Woodward and Bernstein. “I know the b—- gave them to you,” Hundley told Woodward.

Woodward declined to confirm the attorney’s suspicions, citing the newspaper’s policy of protecting sources. Still, Hundley threatened to ask the judge in the John Mitchell case to hold Woodward and Bernstein in contempt if they didn’t return the material, which included documents related to his client’s preparation for an upcoming criminal trial.

Woodward now had a choice to make. And he knew he had to act fast. Hundley was not a man to play with – he made no empty threats.

Woodward made a very Woodwardian calculation: he would play the long game.

Hundley was making a stern demand to return the materials, but he didn’t specifically say Woodward couldn’t copy the material. Maybe it was an oversight. Maybe it was intentional. It didn’t matter.

Woodward realized it was a win-win situation. He could have the material by copying it. Mitchell would get his documents back. And The Post would avoid a legal mess.

In the Post’s crowded newsroom, Woodward appealed to some of the paper’s lesser-known but generally beloved staff members: the small army of copying helpers. It was “emergency Xeroxing,” Woodward recalls with a laugh.

Woodward also felt that Hundley could be useful in the future. Why make an enemy? Over the years, Woodward was right. Hundley, who also had a good source relationship with Bernstein, remained a helpful contact who quietly provided “advice” on legal matters and didn’t put up “the kind of steel shield that many lawyers erect,” Woodward told me.

Woodward made those decisions on his own. Initially, he didn’t tell Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor who had been so intimately involved in the Watergate coverage decisions. He didn’t say anything to Bernstein. He feared that Bradlee and Bernstein would try to fend off Hundley’s request and put The Post into a “defensive squat”. Although he thought Bradlee would see the wisdom in the decision, there was no time for persuasion. Hundley insisted that the documents be returned the next day. (Soon after, Woodward filled in Bradlee and Bernstein, both of whom supported his decision.)

Talking to Woodward, who is now 79, I wondered why he would tell this story after all these years of keeping it to himself. His answer was that we are in a new era of even greater “transparency”. He was in tune with the times.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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