Political Pulse June 2005

The 33-Year Gap

Mark Felt kept quiet for decades, watching others get rich off his story.
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The Deep Throat mystery is solved. Or is it? Some questions remain. Like, why did Mark Felt keep silent for the past 33 years?

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward predicted last year: "I think once people see who it is and exactly what happened, [they] will understand why the super-secrecy and the confidentiality." John O'Connor's Vanity Fair article divulging the identity of Deep Throat quotes Felt's son as saying, "His attitude was, 'I don't think [being Deep Throat] was anything to be proud of. You should not leak information to anyone.' "

Deep Throat revealed secrets about a criminal investigation he headed, something for which he could have been prosecuted. He told his daughter he was worried about "what the judge would think."

Why did Felt decide to reveal himself now? O'Connor says Felt revealed the truth casually, almost inadvertently, to close friends and family members. He confided his identity to a social companion, who shared it with Felt's daughter. She confronted her father: "I know now that you're Deep Throat." His response? "Since that's the case, well, yes, I am."

According to his grandson, Felt says that after 30 years, all is now—finally—forgiven. "As he recently told my mother," Nick Jones said, " 'I guess people used to think Deep Throat was a criminal, but now they think he's a hero.' "

Apparently, one person who changed his mind about Deep Throat was Deep Throat himself. Slate columnist Tim Noah, who once interviewed Felt, recalled, "I asked him, 'Well, would it be such a terrible thing to be Deep Throat?' And he said, 'Yes, it would be. It's a terrible thing to do to the FBI, to leak details of a criminal investigation.' "

Is Deep Throat a hero or a villain? It's not hard to impugn Felt's character. "He lied about his role being Deep Throat," Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz said. "He later was indicted for other Watergate-related activities."

And Felt's motives may not have been so pure. "This was a fellow who was trying to get even with Richard Nixon for not appointing him as director of the FBI," former presidential adviser David Gergen said. "There was a revenge factor here."

Felt's critics argue that if he saw wrongdoing in the Nixon White House, he had other options. Former Nixon White House Counsel Charles Colson said, "He could have walked into Pat Gray's office, the director of the FBI, and said, 'Here are things that are going on in the White House that need to be exposed. The president needs to know about this.' "

Really? According to Ronald Kessler, who wrote The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, "The fact is that Nixon was trying to cover up this whole investigation." And Gray was a Nixon loyalist.

It's easy to say that both sides committed wrongs. "You kind of have a lawbreaker blowing the whistle on a lawbreaker," Noah remarked. "So no one's really a hero here."

But a lot of ordinary Americans take the larger perspective. One, in an e-mail to CNN, wrote, "In all the talk about motives and honor, no one has ever said that anything [Felt] said wasn't true." Another message urged a sense of proportion: "Saying he was somehow dishonorable is like a bank robber attempting to get his case thrown out by claiming the arresting officer had to jaywalk to cuff him."

At least one figure from the Nixon White House thinks most Americans will see the larger picture. "Every secret deserves a decent burial," remarked Leonard Garment, author of In Search of Deep Throat. "I think that this particular secret will probably receive a state funeral."

One key to Felt's motivation is apparent in the Vanity Fair article. Felt's daughter recalls telling her father, "We could make at least enough money to pay some bills, like the debt I've run up for the kids' education. Let's do it for the family." Felt's response: "That's a good reason." Later, he told reporters he now plans to "write a book or something, and get all the money I can."

Well, why not? Felt kept quiet for 33 years, watching other people make fortunes off his story. Former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein said, "I certainly would not begrudge him making some money—given, especially, the critics who are saying this. Most of them have written books about Watergate after they went to jail."

Go to Amazon.com and type in the word "Watergate." You'll get a list of hundreds of books with "Watergate" in the title, including several by ex-cons. Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men was made into a hit movie, grossing more than $70 million. The two reporters sold their Watergate notes and memorabilia—minus papers that would identify Deep Throat—to the University of Texas (Austin) for $5 million.

Now the Felt family's agent is seeking book advances and rights to television and movie projects. What more is there to know about Deep Throat? Bernstein said, "We had no idea of his motivations."

We do know Felt's motive provides a revealing contrast to today's bitterly polarized political environment. Felt helped to bring down a president, but he gave no indication that he harbored any partisan motives. It was a totally different political era.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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