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Updated at 12:10 p.m. ET on October 3, 2019

For the past three weeks I’ve passed the Watergate complex on my bike ride to the Library of Congress, where I’m working on a book about medical whistle-blowers. To claim a sense of déjà vu would probably be an overstatement. Donald Trump is more Spiro Agnew than Richard Nixon, and the whistle-blower propelling the current scandal hasn’t even been identified yet. But it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Watergate when a paranoid, media-bashing president rants about leaks and hides evidence of wrongdoing. “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up that can get you in real trouble,” John Dean told Nixon, who paid no more attention than Trump would have. History doesn’t repeat itself; it doesn’t even rhyme; but occasionally it cracks a joke.

When the Senate began its Watergate hearings in 1973, I was 11 years old; the whole episode feels like a weird dream. The villains were mythic: the sneering John Ehrlichman, the stone-faced John Mitchell, the super-square Bob Haldeman with his military brush-cut, and of course, the Dark One himself, sweating in the Oval Office and cursing the hippies. By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, the drama had burrowed its way deep into my unconscious and settled somewhere next to The Wizard of Oz and the more disturbing parts of the King James Bible.

Watergate was the ultimate whistle-blowing story in an era packed full of them. In 1970 Frank Serpico gave The New York Times secret information about corruption in the New York City police department; in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers; in 1972, Peter Buxtun exposed the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Yet nothing of that period has ever quite reached the status of the Watergate scandal and the figures who exposed it: Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who told the Senate about the secret White House taping system; John Dean, the White House attorney who turned state’s witness and testified against his bosses; and of course, Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, the shadowy figure who guided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through their investigations for The Washington Post and whose identity remained secret for 30 years. Each acted for different reasons and used different methods; each suffered a different fate. But what happened back then might help us understand the motivations of the current whistle-blower and what is likely to happen to him.

It is unlikely that any of the Watergate-era people we now call “whistle-blowers” would have used that term. Until the early ’70s, the term whistle-blower was unknown. In 1972, when Taylor Branch and Charles Peters published the first major book on whistle-blowing, the term represented a conscious effort to redescribe people who had previously been called “traitors,” “rats,” or “stool pigeons.” Branch and Peters called the whistle-blower a “muckraker from within, who exposes what he considers the unconscionable practices of his own organization.” They didn’t distinguish between insiders who blew the whistle to save their necks and those whose motives were selfless. Nor did they distinguish between whistle-blowers who went public with their concerns and those who leaked damaging information in secret.

For decades the most celebrated of the three main Watergate whistle-blowers was Deep Throat, the anonymous source eventually identified as Felt, the associate director of the FBI. Felt took the time-honored route favored by Washington insiders: the strategic leak. Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers for honorable reasons; he had learned that the American government was lying to the public about the war in Vietnam. (Later he outed himself.) But other leakers are entirely self-serving. In fact, many leaks—or maybe I should write “leaks”—are sanctioned by an organization and intended merely to manipulate the press. As Max Holland has written, “No federal agency rivaled the FBI in terms of the well-placed, exquisitely timed disclosure designed with an end in mind.” Maybe Felt was motivated by righteous outrage at Nixon’s corruption. But if he had leaked for selfish reasons, such as to damage an enemy, he wouldn’t have been the first agent in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to do it.  

Nobody outside The Washington Post had heard of Deep Throat in May 1973. Yet everyone watching the Watergate hearings had an opinion about John Dean, Nixon’s inscrutable White House counsel and a key player in the scandal. Dean’s horn-rimmed glasses gave him the look of an accountant, but he spoke like a cold-blooded assassin. He spilled everything: the bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters, the cover-up, the payoff to Howard Hunt, the infamous Enemies List. It wasn’t clear he could be believed. Joseph Alsop famously called him a “bottom-dwelling slug.” In The New York Times, William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter, wrote a piece of doggerel titled “Gunga Dean.” “So it’s Dean! Dean! Dean! Smear your leader, save your skin and vent your spleen!”

Dean was telling the truth, of course, and for that he has been rightly celebrated. But in 1973 most people saw him as a traitor, including many liberals. Hunter Thompson, an admirer, called Dean “a fiendish little drone.” Writing in The New York Review of Books, Nicholas von Hoffman said Dean was “the American ratfink of the twentieth century, so much so that a century hence ‘to pull a John Dean’ may mean to double-cross your pals.”

Loyalty is a Boy Scout virtue, and nobody feels the pain of disloyalty more acutely than whistle-blowers themselves. (Not for nothing did Judas wind up dangling from a tree.) Of all the crimes and sins that Dean committed in the White House—destroying evidence, punishing political enemies, obstructing justice—it was the prospect of disloyalty that seared his conscience most. Dean had worked under Attorney General John Mitchell and felt very close to him. Not only did Mitchell approve the Watergate break-in, he had admitted it to Dean. For Dean to tell the truth about Watergate would mean a prison sentence for Mitchell, a man he thought of as an uncle. “Now I felt the razor edge between the squealer and the perjurer,” Dean wrote in his memoir. “I had never felt more squalid.”

Perhaps the most honorable figure to emerge from Watergate was Butterfield, one of the few staffers who knew about the secret taping system. Unlike Dean, Butterfield was involved in no illegal activity. Unlike Felt, he had no career ambitions that would be served by his revelations. Butterfield simply found it impossible to lie. When he was asked a direct question about Nixon’s tapes during the Watergate hearings, he answered honestly. “Are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office?” Fred Thompson, the minority counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, asked Butterfield.* “I was aware of listening devices, yes, sir,” Butterfield said, after a pause. With that single sentence, Butterfield handed over the keys to the Watergate cover-up.

Whistle-blowers are often asked why they blew the whistle despite the grave risks to themselves. Their answers are often disarmingly matter-of-fact. They don’t make complex moral arguments. They don’t appeal to foundational principles. They don’t cite legal statutes or verses from the Bible. They say things like “I had to be able to look at myself in the mirror” or “That’s simply how I was raised.”  When Butterfield was asked why he did it, he said, “I answered truthfully because I am a truthful person.” Which explains both nothing and everything.

Whistle-blower narratives are stories about the self. The choice to blow the whistle or to stay silent is a choice about the sort of person you are and the one you want to be. It’s not just a matter of what should be done in the abstract. Often, it’s not even primarily about the consequences of the choice, although it can be. It is about the personal stakes of keeping quiet. More often than not, what torments whistle-blowers is what their decision will reveal about them. They are worried about the state of their soul.

We don’t know anything yet about the person who blew the whistle on the Trump White House. What we do know is that most bystanders to wrongdoing do nothing. When asked why they remained silent, bystanders usually give two reasons: first, that speaking out is futile, and second, that they would be punished. And of course, they are right. Felt only avoided hardship because he denied he was Deep Throat until the end of his life. Although Dean blew the whistle at least in part to save himself, he still went to federal prison for four months and was disbarred from practicing law. Even Butterfield, whose only sin was telling the truth, found himself shunned for a decade. Something along those lines is likely to happen to the current White House whistle-blower, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

Whistle-blowers may triumph in Hollywood, but in real life, blowing the whistle is a professional suicide mission. Fred Alford, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, has interviewed dozens of whistle-blowers, many in science and engineering. “The average whistle-blower of my experience is a fifty-five-year-old nuclear engineer working behind the counter at Radio Shack,” Alford writes. “Divorced and in debt to his lawyers, he lives in a two-room rented apartment. He has no retirement plan and few prospects for advancement.” Whistle-blower protection laws are intended to prevent decent people from being fired for doing the right thing, but no law can really mitigate the psychological devastation that comes from blowing the whistle. Most whistle-blowers find themselves exiled from the communities that gave their lives meaning.

Whistle-blowers know this and they speak out anyway. This is why Alford calls the act of whistle-blowing a “choiceless choice.” The whistle-blower didn’t choose to be in this position, but once they are confronted by a choice, they see no real debate about what to do. The relevant question, according to Alford, is not “Why did I act?” but rather, “How did I find myself in the strange position where this is all I could do?”


* This article originally identified Fred Thompson as a senator during the Watergate hearings. He was elected to the Senate in 1994.

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