By John Kendall Hawkins
In June 1972, Martha Mitchell, wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, was brutally beaten in her hotel room by a thug hired by her husband to watch over her and prevent her from communicating to the public. Steve King, the man who beat her black-and-blue and had a psychiatrist stick a needle filled with tranquilizer in her cheeky ass, never faced criminal charges, and went on to become, 45 years later, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic — a Trump appointee unanimously approved by Congress in 2017. Isn’t that a kick in the head.
Martha Mitchell was beaten and sedated because she was on the phone to a reporter — Helen Thomas, then of UPI. The phone was literally ripped out of her hand, and out of the wall, the last thing Thomas heard before the disconnection was: “You just get away.” Martha, known as “The Mouth of the South” or as “a real life Scarlett O’Hara” who frankly didn’t give a damn what people thought of her opinions was a “sensation” on the DC social circuit and in the Press. Newspapers could always count on her to come up with some kind of colorful anecdote. But President Richard Nixon hated her and insisted that her husband, John, find a way to muzzle her.
Just after their arrest, Martha had seen one of the Watergate burglars on TV — Jim McCord, a former chauffeur for her children — and was calling Helen Thomas to blow the whistle. Had she been able to communicate to Thomas what she knew of McCord, and his connections to the Nixon administration, the president’s re-election campaign may have unraveled and a second term quashed. Instead, a skittish press, and an unsupportive husband, accepted the premise that she was an unstable drunk having a breakdown. People turned on her, and, as she poignantly describes in an Episode 1 Dick Cavett interview, she was never able to trust people again — a devastating proposition for someone so extraverted. Further, during the interview, she expressed fear of being shot.
All of this powerful political and psychological tension is captured beautifully in the excellent new Epix series, Slow Burn. The series purports to relate important details overlooked or left out of the master narrative about Watergate and the Nixon resignation that has evolved over the decades. Martha Mitchell rarely features in any ‘commemoration’ of the Nixon take-down. And yet, Episode 1 of the series makes an excellent case for how the press betrayed this insider. More importantly, producer Leon Neyfakh, makes sure we understand that there are valuable parallels between the Nixon era and the Trump circus. We now remember Steve King, but Roger Stone, who just received a 40-month sentence for lying to Congress and witness-tampering, also makes a cameo appearance to describe Nixon’s cover-up.
In an interesting symbiotic development, the Epix Slow Burn series is a visual enactment of the prize-winning podcast series by the same name presented by Slate magazine. I watched Episode 1 “Martha”, which is free at the site, then went back and listened to the podcast, which is about a half-hour shorter than the podcast. There are extras added obviously, such as the interview with Stone, and the visual stimulation allows us to see key unfamiliar figures, like Martha, and helps conjure up a photo album of the time. Other figures, like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and old friend Tom Snyder fill in the rough edges of the era. Going back and forth between TV and podcasts, as episodes stream, seems like a winning combination.
The series promises to deliver more of these vignettes and subplots that are off the beaten narrative track — up next is “Losing Ground,” forgotten Congressman Wright Patman’s attempt — way before the Watergate Hearings made Sam Ervin a household name — to force the conspirators to come clean on the machinations behind the break-in and cover-up. Patman, as Chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, followed the money long before Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), a disgruntled FBI deputy director, famously insisted that WaPo’s Woodward and Bernstein do the same. Though House Democrats at the time had the numbers to force Watergate conspirators to testify, they declined, and, in a farcical slap at the system, Patman held a hearing and interrogated four empty chairs. Compelling stuff.
Other episodes include “A Very Successful Cover-up,” “Lie Detectors,” True Believers,” “Rabbit Holes,” “Saturday Night,” and “Going South.” Again, all of the podcasts (and transcripts) are available for free online, either at Slate, or other easy-to-find places.
Producer Leon Neyfakh closes out the Episode 1 podcast with this note to the listener, which equally applied to the viewer:
In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”
No doubt, she would have had something choice to say about Trump’s appointment of her attacker to the ambassadorship of the Czech Republic. Fuck Steve King.
Richard Nixon’s legacy is more alive and well than it should be
Though Henry Kissinger has put his knee pads back in the prayer closet, Alexander Haig has gone back to being “in charge” of pushing up his daisies, my friend Dave has finally put away his National Lampoon Missing White House Tapes album (Lemmings was better), and old Daniel Ellsberg has put down his party kazoo and gone back to supporting the plight of embattled New York Times journalist James Risen full time, the 40th anniversary celebration of President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s jowly resignation from office on August 8, 1974, has ended all too abruptly for my taste.
So, forgive me if I linger just a little longer over President Paranoid’s demise, and briefly consider what happened in the bracketed historical period After Dick, and discuss where we are today, politically speaking.
Even though America commenced to embrace the healing process necessary to restore confidence in the integrity of the world’s premiere Democratic Republican system just as soon as Nixon boarded that helicopter holding up his Double Vs, it didn’t start out well, for sure, what with new president Gerald Ford’s first order of business being the pardon of the eminently and imminently impeachable president for war criminality abroad and blatant treason at home.
Though the laundry cleansing had actually begun with the Congressional passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, significant reform didn’t seem fully on its way until Frank Church’s Senate hearings of 1975/76 resulted in intensive scrutiny of the extensive “dirty tricks” played by the CIA, NSA and FBI in implementing executive office criminality and in pursuing their own extra-constitutional agendas over a long period of time. The very fearful excesses they engage in now were activities they were engaged in back then as well.
On a 1975 Meet the Press segment, Church cited the breathtaking technological capabilities that US intelligence agencies possessed – even then – and warned that, such were their capabilities, that there would be “nowhere to hide” should those agencies turn their powers on Americans. He added, “If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back…all agencies that possess this technology [must] operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss…from which there is no return.”
The hearings resulted in the creation of the FISA court in 1978. But neither the War Powers Act nor FISA could hold back the siren call of unbridled power.
In his 1983 Atlantic piece, “The Pardon,” investigative journalist Seymour Hersh recounts the general buzz of potential tyranny in the air around the White House in Nixon’s closing days: “The notion that Nixon could at any time resort to extraordinary steps to preserve his presidency was far more widespread in the government than the public perceived in the early days of Watergate or perceives today.”
Hersh implies that the instigating force of such a potential military coup had come from Nixon’s chief of staff, General Alexander Haig, who had at one point, in the closing days, suggested the possibility of bringing in the 82nd Airborne to surround the White House, ostensibly to protect a worried Nixon.
Hersh recounts a variety of disturbing encounters. In an interview with an unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs, the four-star general told Hersh that in December 1973, when Nixon could see the writing on the wall, “He kept on referring to the fact that he may be the last hope, the eastern elite was out to get him. He kept saying, ‘This is our last and best hope. The last chance to resist the fascists [of the left].’ His words brought me straight up out of my chair. I felt the President, without the words having been said, was trying to sound us out to see if we would support him in some extra-constitutional action. He was trying to find out whether in a crunch there was support to keep him in power.”
Nixon’s secretary of defense, James Schlesinger, was so shaken by the possibility of a coup by the unstable president, writes Hersh, that he called meetings with high-ranking Pentagon personnel to secure assurances from them that no extra-constitutional support would be forthcoming should the Commander-in-Chief go that way.
But brutal military coups are hard to pull off and maintain in a nation prepared to fight back against tyranny. But there’s more than one way to skin a catfish, as Mark Twain never said, and the most effective way to achieve the same goal softly would be by getting the People to voluntarily coup themselves.
Beginning in 2000, let’s just say, an unusual array of indisputable facts came together to give the neo-cons just what they dreamed about in their PNAC manifesto, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, which is actually an offensive policy of global interventionism. This American Enterprise think tank report came out two months before Bush stole the 2000 presidential election, and the manifesto’s wistful sigh – such dreams won’t soon come true “absent a new Pearl harbor” — were magically answered a year later, when repeated warnings of an impending attack were ignored in the White House, which, at least indirectly, led to the events of 9 Eleven.
By September 12, 2001, America (and her terrified allies) were ready to respond to any order the burning Bush barked. And the president said to the world, effectively, “You’re either fer us or agin us, and we’re comin ta git all the baddies, however long that takes, which will be forever, because ‘baddies’ will mean whatever we say it means on any given day forever.” And Dick “Dark Shadows” Cheney took off his gloves. And Karl Rove said, “We’re an Empire now.”
And then came the PATRIOT Act, essentially the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act on steroids, with the Bill of Rights thrown out. No more War Powers worries. No more FISA inconveniences. Out the window probable cause. Here comes police state secrecy, illegal willy-nilly wars in foreign lands, comprehensive eavesdropping without accountability or just cause, torture, murder, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Robert Bales, Raymond Davies, black sites, journalists shot or jailed, drone strikes on Americans and helpless children, and the prosecution of anyone who leaks truths. Fergusons will become more frequent. Welcome to the New American Century.
Most Americans, even Republicans, were glad to see the Bush era go, and gladly signed on to first African-American President Barack Obama’s message of hope and change, and repeated his mantra, “Yes, we can.” But as all but the wilfully blind see now, Obama is just one more tyrannical liar, but one who blatantly takes executive office excesses far beyond anything Bush would have dared to try.
Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report has accurately described him as “the more effective evil,” because Obama has taught the Left to accept the real politik of the killing fields of power and urged Democrats to join hands with right-wing ideologues and sing Kumbaya from the twisted recesses of Dante’s Inferno.
Easily the single greatest sign of the executive power’s over-reach is the ease with which the Justice Department signed into effect Obama’s justification for killing an American citizen abroad without due process.
In the aptly titled, “7 Pages That Gave President Obama Cover to Kill Americans,” Conor Friedersdorf of Atlantic Monthly shows how the memo weakens the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and he writes, “As that length suggests, the memo, which could have resulted in a human’s death at any moment, was woefully incomplete as a legal analysis.” It is not merely ironical that the weak memo served the machinations of a Harvard-schooled constitutional scholar, it’s terrifying in its implications.
And if the Morbidly Obese Lady isn’t singing it’s only because her high blood pressure pills have knocked her out on the sofa.
There’s more than one way to skin a catfish.