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Scatterbrained, overstimulated, and insecure in her role as a newsmaker, Martha likes to tell herself and others about her "projects" and "accomplishments." "I've done a great deal for the Salvation Army. I attend a lot of fun-making functions. Last Thursday I spent two hours doing publicity pictures for the Salvation Army. And recently I did publicity pictures for the pollution bit. I drove way out into Virginia to an adorable little stream that was so polluted and foamy it looked like somebody had poured in a whole bottle of Tide." One of her latest projects is an assault on smut, prompted by a spate of pornography mailed to Daughter Marty. "I sent it to the Post Office Department and the Justice Department and quite a few people have been indicted."
She complains about the "artificiality" of Washington social life. "How can you say somebody has a social life when they're programmed?" she asks. "To me, social life is playing bridge, getting to see people I like when I want to." Yet Martha is constantly programming new projects involving Cabinet wives. Last week she gave a Cabinet-wife luncheon for Mrs. Nixon at Blair House, but Mrs. Nixon's staff director, Connie Stuart (whom Martha once threatened to call at 5 a.m. because her messages did not seem to be getting through to the First Lady), told newshens merely that Mrs. Nixon was attending a luncheon at Blair House, without any mention of Hostess Mitchell. In flaming fury, Martha telephoned a Washington Star reporter, charged that "Connie is trying to get rid of me," and wailed: "How can anybody take over my party? It's just unbelievable. I cried my eyes out today. Somebody should get down and bleed for me. I try so hard."
She does. And the incident illustrates Martha Mitchell's virulent case of Potomac Fever, a malady to which few top-and middle-echelon Washington wives are immune—whether they be Watergate nouveaux, Georgetown chic, or Cleveland Park intellectual elbow-patch.
Potomac Fever is compounded of the sense of excitement, importance, freedom and expanded possibilities that grows gradually upon newcomers to Washington. It increases both their pleasure in being there and their chagrin and insecurity that it all may so soon be taken away. For some men of power and politics, the city tends to be like a chessboard, for some a football field, for others a blood-drenched battleground. For their wives it is often like a cruise ship: the rules of behavior seem formidably strange at first, as do one's fellow passengers, and one feels a yearning for the familiar comforts of home. But after a while the routine becomes second nature, and certain attractions begin to reveal themselves: the esprit de corps of participating in a common adventure, a feeling of liberation from home-town pressures and personalities, the stimulus of new people with disparate backgrounds and ideas.