Martha gets a little upset about politics
As the US election drew to its close, I remembered a comic series I read at the age of 10, "Prez", which ran for just 4 issues in 1973 and 1974. Nostalgically, I bought a set on eBay, re-read them today - and realised their connection to a hero of US politics, a key figure in exposing Watergate who suffered personally from the experience, Martha Mitchell.
Prez starts with the terrifying Boss Smiley - a mobster with a smiley for a head - who needs a new stooge to replace pet politicians that people are starting to distrust, especially as the youth vote grows. He finds an 18 year old who made the papers for fixing all the clocks in his town and gets him elected President.
However, the boy meets a native American living with animals in the wild who is both an eco-warrior and a tech genius. Eagle Free helps him see what is going on, and becomes his FBI chief. Together, they start running the country in their own way - but it doesn't take long for their attitudes to change.
The second issue satirises the use of sport as propaganda in chess - Prez and Eagle Free expose a Russian plot to cheat, by drugging a wild spoof of Bobby Fischer who acts like a lunatic and cares only about money. In the third issue, their attempt to ban firearms leads to a coup by a descendant of George Washington, who funds his ragtag army by printing his own money. To defeat the coup, Prez authorises the army to fire on the rebels, subsequently giving an "historic" speech to mark his abandonment of flower power views. After this damascene conversion, there's no stopping him.
The next challenge is an invasion by an country of vampires, angered by US funding of a dam on their border. To stop this, the newly hawk-like Prez is all for nuking them - unfortunately for him, though, the generals claim there are technical problems, so Eagle Free has to save the day by sending his birds on a suicide mission. Don't you have to love the 1970s!
After 4 issues between Sep 1973 and Mar 1974, the series was abruptly cancelled. This happened a lot to comics back then, but Prez seemed very popular with readers, so one has to wonder if DC Comics felt they were touching too much of a nerve, bang in the middle of the Watergate scandal, with a series about a president elected through mob support.
Clearly, the series targets Nixon, but Prez also has parallels with JFK - Prez survives his assassination attempt but, from being an icon of hope for young people, becomes an aggressor on the world stage. Something I didn't realise when I first read them was the identity of his vice-president, in the comics called only Martha - a kooky and lovable older woman who entertains visiting dignitaries with wild party games. At the age of 10, I guessed this might be Martha Kent, Superman's mother, but clearly it is intended to be Martha Mitchell, of whom Nixon told David Frost, "If it hadn't been for Martha Mitchell, there'd have been no Watergate."
Martha was an outspoken socialite with an engaging manner and a drink problem, well-known and controversial for her habit of saying too much on talk shows and to reporters at parties. Her husband John Mitchell was Nixon's Attorney General, and a lead figure in the illegal machinations of the Committee to Re-elect the President (commonly known as CREEP). Martha disapproved, thought her husband was a fall guy (in the end he did serve time, unlike Nixon) and threatened to leave him and go to the press unless he came clean. She followed through, but her phone call to a reporter ended suddenly.
It later turned out that Martha was kidnapped and beaten by the Mitchell's own security guard in an attempt to make her keep quiet, with at least the knowledge of her husband and most probably his instigation. This didn't work - if anything, she became more outspoken about corruption in the GOP - but she never fully recovered from the experience and died in poverty 3 years later, abandoned by most of her family.
When reporters were trying to find Martha after the interrupted phone call, John Mitchell told them she "gets a little upset about politics, but she loves me and I love her and that’s what counts." Now, Martha is celebrated with monuments, a book, a museum, and several plays - but her most enduring impact may be recognition of the "Martha Mitchell effect" - the process by which a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other medical professional labels a patient's accurate perception of real events as delusional.
Oh, and it's worth mentioning Trump's 2017 appointee as ambassador to the Czech Republic, still in post - Steve King, Mitchell's FBI security guard in 1972, the man allegedly responsible for Martha's kidnapping and beating.