Political Education

The Martha Mitchell Effect

Martha Beall Mitchell, nicknamed the “Mouth of the South” was the wife of President Nixon’s Attorney Geneal, John N. Mitchell.. Washington D.C. insiders, including reporters, were intrigued by Martha Mitchell because of her social status. Martha had some access to John’s phone calls, meetings, and documents. Martha would make late-night calls to journalists accusing the Nixon campaign of carrying out the Watergate burglary and covering it up.

The Watergate scandal began on June 17, 1972, when Nixon operatives were arrested for burglary of the office of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. This was no ordinary robbery: The Nixon operatives had attempted to wiretap phones and steal documents to help Nixon’s re-election effort.

Martha feared that the Nixon people would make her husband, John, the scapegoat for the crimes. Since Martha Mitchell was well known in Washington D.C. social circles as an unstable character with a possible drinking problem, Nixon insiders were able, for a while, to dismiss her warnings as a sign of some sort of delusional disorder. At one point, Martha was on the phone to Helen Thomas of United Press International talking about Nixon’s “dirty politics” when a Mitchell aide, now known to be Steve King, actually tore her phone out of the wall.

Mitchell later claimed that she was held captive in a California hotel for several days and that King restrained her while she was tranquilized against her will by a psychiatrist. Because of her unstable reputation, Nixon insiders were, again, able, for a while, to portray Martha Mitchell as an alcoholic liar and publicly dismiss her. Martha Mitchell’s charges that the Nixon administration was corrupt were written off as alcoholism and delusions related to a mental illness. Then the truth came out.

In psychology, this situation is now known as the Martha Mitchell Effect.

Martha Mitchell effect is understood as the situation in which professionals in psychology and/or psychiatry come to the conclusion that a specific event reported by the patient is the product of delirium or an altered state of consciousness, this event being true.

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The events in question usually refer to events with a low probability of occurrence, implausible and with a high level of implausibility, little shared by the social environment and with emphasis on the perception of the phenomenon as something self-referential and directed towards the person. Clear examples of this are the ideas of being persecuted by criminal gangs, being watched by the government, or having information of great importance that someone wants to silence.

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As we deal with the Qanon-type conspiracy theories that flourish today, Martha Mitchell’s story reminds us that once in a great while a genuine conspiracy really does exist and that critical thinking is necessary to discern truth from madness.

One last note: the former Mitchell aide accused of restraining Martha, Stephen King, was appointed as the Trump administration’s U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Thanks and a tip of the hat to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration for the image of Julie Nixon and Martha Mitchell.

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