Until Tuesday, W. Mark Felt was one of the most famous anonymous people in America. As "Deep Throat," he was not merely the unnamed source who helped the Washington Post bring down a president, he was a mythic presence, standing for any selfless, conscience-stricken hero who ever worked to reveal wrongdoing in high places.
Now that Felt has been revealed as the answer to one of the most enduring mysteries of modern politics, we are left without the cherished myth. The truth is more prosaic and more complicated.
Felt, the No. 2 official at the FBI at the time of Watergate, was powerful but unglamorous. Among the Washington cognoscenti, he was always considered a likely candidate for Deep Throat, but he lacked the popular appeal of, say, White House deputy counsel Fred F. Fielding, who would have personified the tortured insider bent on restoring honor to the republic by helping expose the Nixon White House's cover-up after a burglary at Democratic Party headquarters. Ditto Leonard Garment, a White House lawyer known as a good influence on his boss.
Felt, meanwhile, had been passed over in 1972 to succeed the late J. Edgar Hoover as FBI chief in favor of L. Patrick Gray, a Nixon loyalist. Hoover had stiff-armed Congress and the White House to build his FBI fiefdom and his personal myth (except for the cross-dressing and his close friend, Clyde Tolson).
Felt's specific motives are unknowable, but we'll speculate: Desire to bring down a boss viewed inside the bureau as a hack. Revenge against the White House for resisting the FBI's Watergate probe. Gall at not getting the top job. Given that Felt was later prosecuted for approving illegal entry during investigations of Vietnam War-era lefties, it can't just have been outrage at dirty tricks.
Former Nixon counsel Chuck Colson (who served time for his own Watergate errors) professed himself shocked that Felt had violated "his oath to keep this nation's secrets." As if there's no difference between nuclear strategy and rounding up hush money to silence your hired burglars.
Informants don't usually appear from nowhere: They've been fired, or passed over for a job they know they should have had, or need to put some distance between themselves and those likely to be prosecuted. They often do a great public service, but not for purely public motives.
So the truth may be that Felt was more an aggrieved FBI loyalist than a champion of truth. Still, he helped trigger a healthy skepticism of official secrecy. Sometimes less purity of motive does the body politic good.