Jacob Heilbrunn

Was Deep Throat A Conniving Backstabber?

Was Deep Throat a hero who exposed Watergate? Or was he a disgruntled employee at the FBI who had his own nasty motives for trying to bring down the FBI hierarchy? A new book by Max Holland, a serious and accomplished historian, seems to suggest the latter. It's called Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. If early reports are anything to go by, it's going to be a corker of a book, destined to create a fresh layer of controversy around Watergate. The publisher is the University of Kansas.

Felt was number two at the FBI, and his identity was made public by Bob Woodward in 2005. Holland apparently indicates that Felt was aggrieved that L. Patrick Gray had been appointed head of the FBI after J. Edgar Hoover died in 1972 rather than him. So he set out to make the FBI look unreliable in the hopes that he might eventually be promoted and to settle scores with what he saw as his enemies. Hence the information that he supplied to the Washington Post may not always have been reliable. It seems likely that Woodward and/or Bernstein will feel obliged to respond, and it will be highly intriguing to see what their response says.

The initial leak of the book itself has come, as best I can tell, from one Glenn Garvin. Writing in the Miami Herald, Garvin observes,

It wasn’t until 2005, when nearly every senior official of the Nixon White House was dead and Deep Throat himself was disappearing into the mists of Alzheimer’s disease, that the reporters revealed that he was Felt. Even then, Woodward insisted Felt’s motives were pure, that he was a freedom fighter in “a war—organized, well-practiced and well-funded by President Richard Nixon—a war aimed at the system of justice. Mark’s great decision in all this was his refusal to be silenced. . . . He was a truth-teller.”

The real story is “considerably messier and less than a fairy tale,” Holland writes in Leak. Through interviews, declassified documents and Nixon’s White House tapes, he demonstrates convincingly that Felt’s objectives were covetous rather than civic: He desperately wanted to be director of the FBI.

Of course, a defender of Felt might argue that it doesn't really matter whether or not his motives were pure. It was the evidence he provided that mattered. But how significant was Deep Throat? Much ink has been expended upon whether Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein really cracked the case—or whether it was the Judge John Sirica and Congress that really got to the heart of the matter. Either way, Woodward and Bernstein did publicize Watergate, and they have become a permanent part of the mental furniture of the episode.

Another sign of Watergate's continued power to fascinate comes in a new novel by the estimable Thomas Mallon simply called Watergate. It's reviewed in today's Wall Street Journal by former Nixon operative Frank Gannon. He gives the novel a qualified endorsement, calling it "vivid and witty" but complains that it transgresses appropriate historical boundaries by suggesting a "fictional adultery" on the part of Pat Nixon as well as scanting, Gannon writes, the starring role of John Dean.

Whether Watergate will remain a contentious subject of debate after the disappearance of the baby-boom generation is questionable. But it does seem likely that new information and revelations will seep out over coming decades. Holland's book sounds as though it adds an important new layer of complexity to Watergate.