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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Published: Friday, 6/3/2005

Deep Throat in retrospect

Watergate was a cautionary tale for any president tempted to break faith with the American people by lying to them

IT WAS the summer of 1973, and Americans were transfixed by the Senate Watergate hearings, perhaps the best daytime TV entertainment before or since. The sonorous voice of Sen. Sam Ervin, committee chairman. The refrain of the Senate Republican leader Howard Baker: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" By the end of the hearings the fate of Richard Nixon who, it was revealed, had bugged his own office, was sealed, leaving an indelible stain on the reputation of the federal government.

One major mystery remained. Who was Deep Throat, the high-ranking public official who assisted Washington Post reporters as they worked to unravel the puzzle of the so-called "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic party during the 1972 presidential campaign?

This week, W. Mark Felt, former No. 2 man at the FBI, publicly acknowledged that he was the source who assisted the reporters often by simply confirming information they had gotten elsewhere. With his help, the Washington Post and the two reporters who worked on the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, kept the Watergate investigation going until enough witnesses cracked under judicial pressure to start spilling the beans.

The Post was forced to confirm Mr. Felt, now 91 years old and physically ailing, as the famous source, and Ben Bradlee, editor of the newspaper when the scandal broke, commented: "The thing that stuns me is that the goddamn secret has lasted this long."

An account of the story in Vanity Fair indicates that the secret was gradually leaking out anyway. Given the generational gap between those who had any first-hand knowledge of the scandal, undoubtedly the worst in American presidential history, it is interesting that Mr. Felt's children and grandchildren helped overcome his reluctance to come forward this side of the grave.

Deep Throat was but one of a notable cast of characters in this political morality play. Mr. Felt did have some reason to grind his axe because Richard Nixon passed him over in favor of L. Patrick Gray, as the successor to J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director. Leakers usually act out of a mixture of motives. Mr. Felt was both intrigued and troubled by his role as a source to the Post reporters, and frequently alluded to that fact in conversations with family members and others who knew or suspected his identity.

Mr. Felt's family views him as a hero and a patriot, and many Americans, conscious of how close this nation was to a constitutional crisis in the early 1970s, will applaud his actions. Forty Nixon aides were indicted and a number of them served time in prison. But former presidential speech writer Pat Buchanan called Mr. Felt a "traitor," and similar negative judgments were voiced by ex-jailbirds G. Gordon Liddy and Charles Colson. Liddy has been rehabilitated after a fashion as a talk-show host and Colson as an evangelical Christian broadcaster and prison counselor. In our view their judgments count for very little.

Inevitably, as our pervasive pop culture imitates life, the movie about Watergate, All the President's Men, allowed Mr. Woodward, Mr. Bernstein, and Mr. Bradlee to be subsumed by actors Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards, especially for generations born since that stormy era. Watergate, along with the Vietnam War, turned millions of Americans into skeptics about the six presidents who have followed Nixon - all of whom have had to stare at the American people across a credibility gap of some sort during their time in office.

It is well that Mr. Felt has revealed his identity and once again reminded us that Watergate is a cautionary tale for a republic which bears the burden of being the only remaining superpower in the world. It is a cautionary tale, too, for any president tempted to break faith with the American people by lying to them.

Even so, the Watergate scandal severely tested the American system and found the system not wanting in strength.



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