IN Pine Bluff, Ark., she was an average Middle American high school girl. In wartime Washington, or postwar Forest Hills, or more recently in establishmentarian, suburban Rye, N.Y., she was little more than part of the background—not spectacular, not social, not smart—and only dimly remembered by her neighbors. Then, about a year ago, as the wife of the U.S. Attorney General, she told a TV reporter that the November peace demonstration in Washington reminded her husband of a Russian revolution. That indiscretion made her a nine-day wonder. Instead of fading, however, the wonder has grown. This month the Gallup poll announced that fully 76% of the American population realizes who Martha Mitchell is, establishing her as a personality who is already better known than many politicians or entertainers—and is fast approaching the celebrity of Jacqueline Onassis (91%), who has been at it considerably longer and with some notable advantages.
Martha's trademark is her mouth, literally and metaphorically. Agape with laughter and framed in dimples, it dominates the Washington social scene—cocktail parties, state dinners. White
House functions, ladies' luncheons—and shoots off for appreciative newsmen, telling it as Martha thinks it is. Her telephonic voice has become equally familiar to editors. She calls them in the small hours of the morning with pungent advice, such as her 2 a.m. blast to the Arkansas Gazette: "I want you to crucify Ful-bright—and that's that." She has been known to use the blue wall phone in the privacy of the bathroom "so that John won't know," enabling detractors to insinuate that she sometimes takes a drink or two too many. Martha's friends, however, insist that her midnight telephonitis is nothing but her lifetime habit of speaking her mind on the instant.
Martha-isms such as "Anytime you get somebody marching in the streets, it's catering to revolution," and "Adults like to be led. They would rather respond to a form of discipline" have made her a pillar of rectitude and moral resurgence to much of conservative America, a figure of ridicule to liberals and a public embarrassment to many a traditionalist Republican.
But the Attorney General, who might be the most embarrassed of all, merely smiles a wan little smile and refers fondly to her as his "unguided missile." She also has an admirer in President Nixon, who has referred to her as "spunky" and told her to "give 'em hell."
What happened to splash this sudden dazzle of national limelight over the nonentity from Pine Bluff?
A personality change? A weekend encounter group? An inspired public relations man? What happened was Nixonian Washington, which with its button-down, square-cut, early-to-bed monochrome, tends to make any spot of color look bigger and brighter. But then too, Washington under any Administration has always had a special electricity for women—a current of excitement that brings out previously unrecognized or suppressed qualities.