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'Deep Throat' Is Unmasked. Who Cares?

June 02, 2005|David Greenberg | David Greenberg is a professor of journalism, media studies and history at Rutgers University and author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" (W.W. Norton, 2003). He worked as Bob Woodward's assistant on "The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House" (Simon and Schuster, 1994).

The disclosure that W. Mark Felt, formerly the No. 2 official at the FBI, was Bob Woodward's famous Watergate source, "Deep Throat," has received a flurry of media attention normally reserved for such world-shattering events as a tsunami, the death of a pope or a runaway bride. Some perspective is in order.

Admittedly, the unmasking of the whistle-blower who helped Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of the Washington Post, assemble key pieces of the Watergate puzzle is not without importance. A president resigned amid scandal, a constitutional crisis was overcome: It's natural to seek clues about how Richard Nixon's presidency unraveled.

The news, moreover, should dispel the delusions of those who have claimed that Throat was a fabrication or a composite of several people. It should silence the conspiracy-mongers who have speculated that he was a Pentagon hawk -- Alexander Haig, perhaps -- who may have opposed detente with the Soviet Union and therefore contrived to oust Nixon.

It should end, too, one of the longest-running (and most enjoyable) floating parlor games for political junkies. Former Nixon aides John W. Dean III and Leonard Garment, as well as others who wrote books about Throat, should be glad they got their royalty checks when they did. Bill Gaines, the journalism professor whose classes researched the Throat mystery year after year, will need a new syllabus.

But if the guessing game was diverting -- as in fun -- it also diverted discussion from more significant aspects of Watergate. This week's revelation doesn't change our understanding of the crisis in any fundamental way.

For one thing, many people suspected all along that Felt was Throat, despite his denials. (Woodward never ruled out Felt, though he did rule out a few other possibilities.) Although few people knew Throat's identity with certainty, the revelation is more a thrill than a surprise. It's not as if Deep Throat turned out to be former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger or Nixon's son-in-law, David Eisenhower -- disclosures that might well have rattled notions about Watergate, forcing historians to rethink Nixon's relationship to those closest to him.

In fact, for a senior FBI man to have distrusted Nixon, and to have abhorred the illegal actions in his White House, makes perfect sense. The FBI-White House tensions in those years are well documented. In 1970, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover himself snuffed out a controversial and probably illegal scheme to centralize intelligence-gathering in the White House.

Many observers have suggested, usually without offering specifics, that knowing Deep Throat's institutional identity would broaden our knowledge about his motives. Perhaps it does, a tiny bit. For history, however, what is most important about Throat isn't the motives he concealed but the information he revealed. Whether out of love of country, spite toward Nixon or bureaucratic turf-consciousness, Felt brought to light critical information, particularly about the White House's involvement in Watergate.

Yet even Throat's value as a source shouldn't be overstated. He was one of many sources -- albeit a weighty one -- on whom Woodward and Bernstein relied. And Woodward and Bernstein were among several reporters -- though surely the most crucial ones -- who pursued Watergate. And the press' digging represented just one of many inquiries, which also included the trials of the burglars, the Senate investigation, the House impeachment probe and the work of special prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski. Deep Throat didn't "bring down" Nixon, certainly not alone.

Throat's inflated mystique has two sources. First, the long-kept secret of his identity captivated journalists above all. It conjured the dilemmas of anonymous sources and demonstrated the power of reporting. Fascinated by the riddle, they wrote about it a lot.

Second, Throat's star turn in the hit 1976 film "All the President's Men" -- those brilliantly filmed clandestine garage meetings between the reporter and the source, enhanced by Hal Holbrook's steely panache -- bestowed upon him a sexy aura of mystery for the ages.

But although the frenzy over Felt's admission is understandable, it shouldn't distract us from the truly significant questions about Watergate. How, for example, did the White House turn into a hothouse of criminality? To what extent did the Watergate mentality pervade other areas of Nixon's presidency, such as policymaking? What did law mean in the Nixon White House? One blessing of Felt's coming in from the cold at age 91 is that questions that have real historical import may now be pursued without distraction.

Until, that is, we find out what's on the 18 1/2-minute gap.

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