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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Death of Deep Throat

For three decades, he was a man of mystery, known only as "Deep Throat," the man who blew the whistle on the Nixon White House.

The world speculated endlessly about his identity until he made the decision, with input from his family, to reveal it in 2005.

Three and a half years later, Mark Felt died Thursday at the age of 95, apparently of congestive heart failure.

When Felt broke his silence, "Vanity Fair" broke the news to the world in an article headlined "I'm the Guy They Called Deep Throat."

Felt's family insisted on calling him an "American hero" for his contributions to the Watergate investigation as "Deep Throat" while associate director of the FBI, and he was praised by others as well. Among his motives, reportedly, was the belief that the revelation would be lucrative, helping to pay for his grandchildren's education.

Still others were not nearly as charitable, alleging less than altruistic reasons for blowing the whistle. They claimed that Felt — a known admirer of and loyalist to J. Edgar Hoover — had personal motives for his actions — including resentment for being passed over when Hoover's replacement was chosen after he died in 1972.

"[I]t is true I would like to have been appointed FBI director," Felt said, but he insisted that "I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or anyone else!"

I don't know what the truth is, whether Felt was motivated by patriotic or personal reasons. Does it matter? As an amateur observer of human psychology, I'm kind of inclined to apply my favorite Forrest Gumpism to it: "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Richard Nixon, who died in 1994, believed Felt was "Deep Throat," perhaps in part because, as Nixon's own tape recordings revealed, Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff, told him that Felt "knows everything that's to be known in the FBI." Nixon never revealed Felt's identity, perhaps because he knew he would have been hurt more by the revelation than Felt.

"If we move on him, he'll go out and unload everything," Haldeman told Nixon.

In hindsight, it's hard to imagine Nixon being hurt more than he was. He resigned in August 1974.

The Washington Post's managing editor, Howard Simons, was the one who made the early decisions in 1972 for the paper to follow the story and to assign Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to cover it, according to Barry Sussman, a former Post editor and author of "The Great Coverup: Nixon and the Watergate Scandal."

And Simons was the one who dubbed Felt "Deep Throat" — which was a bit of word play, using the name of a popular pornographic movie of the day and the fact that the celebrated source in the story was on what is known in the newspaper business as "deep background."

I don't know if Simons knew Felt's true identity. Woodward and Bernstein always claimed that only three people on the newspaper knew who "Deep Throat" was — the reporters and editor Ben Bradlee — and that they had made an agreement with the source not to reveal his identity until after his death — or unless he voluntarily chose to reveal himself.

Interestingly, it has been suggested that Felt may have believed he could plausibly deny revealing information to "Woodward and Bernstein" because he never met Bernstein.

(Bernstein confirmed, in an interview with CNN, that he did not meet Felt until this year.)

It is my understanding that, with the possible exception of some of the earliest articles, Woodward and Bernstein shared the byline credit on the Watergate-related stories — which would have led to the natural (although erroneous) assumption that any information source that one reporter knew, the other also knew.

It appears likely to me that only Felt's name was known to Bradlee as well — unless the esteemed editor accompanied Woodward on one of his late-night parking garage rendezvous with Felt.

I was a teenager in the Watergate years, and I've read many books and articles about Watergate, but I've never seen descriptions in any of the accounts of the meetings between Woodward and Felt of any additional people being present.

If Felt wasn't known to many people at the time, it seems certain that his name will be known to future generations of history students.

And his portrayal, by Hal Holbrook, as the shadowy source in the Dustin Hoffman-Robert Redford film "All the President's Men," may not be the only time his character is depicted on screen. After Felt's true identity was revealed in 2005, Universal Pictures and Tom Hanks' production company bought the movie rights.

To my knowledge, such a movie has not been started yet, but Felt's death may renew any flagging interest in the project.

And Woodward's rapidly written 2005 book about his relationship with Felt, "The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat," may see an uptick in sales following Felt's death.

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