WASHINGTON — “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate,” Richard Nixon once said.
He meant she was a pain in the ass, distracting his attorney general during a time of crisis and otherwise getting in the way. But his words were truer than he knew.
“The Martha Mitchell Effect” seeks to put the loudest, brashest Cabinet wife back where she belongs — right at the center of American history. Streaming now on Netflix, the documentary takes a woman accused of being boozy and delusional and shows us an imploding presidency through her eyes.
For directors Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy, it’s more than a reclamation project or another tribute conveniently timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the burglaries at the Watergate hotel. They sort through the proof that was there all along, if anyone cared to listen. And in 40 minutes of archival footage, they show that politics is always personal.
“It’s obviously a very topical tale. It has a lot of parallels to today and corruption at the highest level,” Alvergue said. “But, in essence, it’s also a love story.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: I have a bookshelf of Watergate-related titles, and it’s mostly filled with men. Why have people forgotten about Martha Mitchell?
AA: Martha Mitchell was a Cabinet wife in Nixon’s first administration. She was married to John Mitchell, who was Nixon’s attorney general and some would say his second-in-command. She was an outsider to Washington society; she hailed from Arkansas; and she didn’t quite fit in — she was too loud and brash for Washington women’s society, and she wasn’t taken seriously by the men.
But she was taken seriously by the press, or at least she became quite friendly with them. It’s hard to fathom today how popular she was. No one can name a Cabinet wife, I think now in the Biden administration. But polls taken at the time showed she was as popular as Jackie O. She really did become a household name.
Q: At first she was a true believer in Nixon. But when she realized something fishy was happening with Watergate, she went straight to the press, as she liked to do. She said the FBI was trying to silence her by holding her hostage .