Ed Driscoll

Was He Ever Here At All?

Found via Mark Hemingway, the New York Times notes that W. Mark Felt, the FBI agent who was revealed in 2005 to be Woodward and Bernstein’s “Deep Throat” and played by Hal Holbrook in the film version of All The President’s Men is dead at age 95.

Back in 2005 with a movie then in theaters about a powerful Machiavellian ruler corrupted by power that featured performances even more wooden than Robert Redford in mind, Mark Steyn wrote “Revenge of the Felt“:

”Revenge of the Sith” is a marvel of motivational integrity compared to ”Revenge of the Felt,” the concluding chapter in that other ’70s saga, Watergate. Before the final denouement last week, there were a gazillion guesses at the identity of ”Deep Throat,” but all subscribed to the basic contours of the Woodward and Bernstein myth: that he was someone deep in the bowels of the administration who could no longer in good conscience stand by as a corrupt president did deep damage to the nation. So Darth Throat, a fully paid-up Dark Lord of the Milhous, saved the Republic from the imperial paranoia of Chancellor Nixotine by transforming himself into Anakin Slytalker and telling what he knew to the Bradli knights of the Washington Post.

Now we learn that Deep Throat was not, in fact, Alexander Haig, David Gergen, Pat Buchanan or Len Garment, but a disaffected sidekick of J. Edgar Hoover, an old-school G-man embittered at being passed over for the director’s job when the big guy keeled over after half-a-century in harness.

Hmm. Like the ”Star Wars” wrap-up, ”How Mark Felt Became Deep Throat” feels small and mean after three decades of the awesome dramatic burden placed upon it. The nobility of the Watergate myth — in which media boomers and generations of journalism school ethics bores have sunk so much — seems cheapened and tarnished by this last plot twist.

The best thing I read on the subject in the last few days was a 1992 piece by James Mann from the Atlantic Monthly. He doesn’t identify Deep Throat, though he mentions Mark Felt in an important context. But get a load of this remarkably shrewd paragraph from 13 years ago:

”By coincidence, the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17, less than seven weeks after Hoover’s death and [FBI outsider] Gray’s appointment [as acting director]. The FBI took charge of the federal investigation at the same time that the administration was trying to limit its scope.

”Therein lies the origin of Deep Throat.”

Bingo! Mann also adds: ”Rarely is it asked whether White House aides like Haig, Ziegler, and Garment were the sort of people willing to hold 2 a.m. meetings in a parking garage, or whether they were able to arrange the circling of the page number 20 of Bob Woodward’s copy of the New York Times, which was delivered to his apartment by 7 a.m. — the signal that Deep Throat wanted a meeting.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Mann’s observation seems obvious. That’s what the spy novelists call ”tradecraft.” It’s the sort of thing spooks and feds do, not White House aides. Why then was it not so obvious for the last three decades?

The answer is that, thanks to All The President’s Men, the media took it for granted they were America’s plucky heroic crusaders, and there’s no point being plucky heroic crusaders unless you’ve got the dark sinister forces of an all-powerful government to pluckily crusade against. Think how many conspiracy movies there’ve been where White House aides are the sort of chaps who think nothing of meeting you at 2 a.m. in parking garages, usually as a prelude to having you whacked. In films like Clint Eastwood’s ”Absolute Power” or Kevin Costner’s ”No Way Out,” political appointees carry on like that routinely. That image of government derives principally from the Nixon era.

During that same period, Jay Rosen wrote of “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion“:

Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers–and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism–is a big question. Whether it should is another question.

Felt and many of the other supporting players of Watergate are slowly heading towards the exits. And with the lights about to go out on the legacy media, journalists finally have found a new religion to rally around–but will it be powerful enough to save the old order?

Update: Welcome readers of The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room.

Elsewhere on the Web, Ed Morrissey’s thoughts on Mark Felt are also worth reading.