Ode to Pine Bluff's Martha Mitchell
The Watergate heroine was born on September 2, 1918
I was a political geek at an early age, thanks to Richard M. Nixon.
One of my earliest memories is twirling around the house at age 3 wearing a floppy white hat with “Nixon” stamped in red, white and blue. I didn’t know a Republican from a Democrat. I only knew he was president and one of my father’s friends had given me the hat during Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972.
That hat, which got lost in the trash bags of time, married me to Nixon. My mom would read the newspaper to me every afternoon — national news, editorials, cartoons, Dear Abby. I didn’t know Watergate from a water moccasin, but I knew Nixon’s name. So I listened.
Watergate dominated the airwaves the summer I was 4, and the Washington drama washed away my mom’s and my daily dish of “All My Children.” Instead, men in suits took over and I was mesmerized. Geekingly so.
Maybe the absorption also had to do with the deep connection between my hometown and Watergate. John N. Mitchell, Nixon’s former attorney general who took over the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, was married to colorful, outspoken Martha Mitchell.
She was born in the same Southern city as I was: Pine Bluff.
During the 1970s, it seemed the entire town whispered her name — already a household one because of television and magazine cover appearances — as if she was a local debutante immersed in a country club scandal. Like Nixon, she, too, became a mythical figure to me living in a fabled land called Washington. Watergate was my bedtime story.
I didn’t understand the ins and outs of the scandal by any stretch. People were just in trouble, including the president whose name was on that floppy hat that perched on top of a doll most days.
Martha asked Nixon to resign long before it became popular. She was calling newspaper reporters, including the legendary Helen Thomas, and some who worked at my hometown paper, the “Pine Bluff Commercial,” whispering Watergate rumors in the middle of the night. She lost her marriage because of her whistleblower mouth. Ooh, a troublemaker. I loved her. I wanted to know more about her.
My parents knew the location of the house where the spitfire blonde Martha was born and drove me past the blue Victorian house where she had grown up. Watergate seemed all the more real. Someone who had lived in that house had landed in the middle of history. My parents knew people who were friends or relatives to her, and often said “So-in-so knows her.” I hoped one day I would.
When Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, I sat in front of the television watching as if it was a Scooby Doo cartoon. Nixon out, Ford in. It was that quick. I was hooked on the strange world of politics. While my friends ordered Shaun Cassidy posters from Scholastic, I checked off books about Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross on the order form.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1976, Martha Mitchell died from multiple myeloma. I remember so clearly my mother stating matter-of-factly, “Nixon killed her.” My mom explained that there was a mysterious conspiracy theory surrounding her death. The Nixon Administration wanted Mitchell quiet and they had injected her with tranquilizers in California, Mitchell told reporters.
It seemed everyone in her hometown believed that Nixon, the CIA, some shadowy government agency killed her. For several years, her death was debated under hair dryers in Pine Bluff beauty shops. The rumors continued, especially after Nixon said, during an interview with David Frost in September 1977, that “if it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.” And he would have still had a political career.
Statewide television aired Martha’s funeral procession. Pine Bluff — forever and always a Southern gossipy town — wondered for months who had sent a floral spray of white chrysanthemums that said “Martha Was Right.” The funeral home and florist refused to say. Soon after Martha died, my parents, at my request, took me to the historic cemetery — Bellwood — where she was buried. I’m not sure what I thought at the time, but it felt historic and important.
The “Pine Bluff Commercial” published an editorial the day after Martha died about Southern women. The author wrote, “They don’t stay up on a pedestal, not in a crisis. When the menfolk are defeated or cowed, they come down to do battle.” The writer added, “It can be a lonely road.”
At least for Martha, she got her own road. The interstate that ran behind my suburban neighborhood of Belmont was renamed the Martha Mitchell Expressway. In downtown Pine Bluff, a bronze bust of “the heroine of Watergate” was erected. It never failed that I didn’t pay homage to it out the car window whenever we drove past. For me, living in this world, it was impossible to escape Watergate long after its era had vanished.
Even now, when I roam around Pine Bluff, I wonder who sent that funeral spray.
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