W. Joseph Campbell

Did Watergate’s ‘Deep Throat’ know he was ‘Deep Throat’?

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on April 15, 2012 at 11:48 am

Felt: Did he know he was 'Deep Throat'?

Barry Sussman, the Washington Post’s Watergate editor in the early 1970s, raises a provocative question about the newspaper’s famous high-level source, W. Mark Felt, a senior FBI official when the Watergate scandal was unfolding.

Did Felt realize that the Post regarded him as “Deep Throat,” as a vital source in reporting the unfolding Watergate scandal? Sussman asks.

The question is pertinent and intriguing, Sussman writes in a recent commentary at the Nieman Watchdog blog, because Felt as a source offered “so little” to Bob Woodward, one of the Post’s lead reporters on Watergate.

And yet it is widely believed Felt offered vital information to Woodward about the emergent scandal.

Although Sussman doesn’t specifically address it, the implication of his observation is that “Deep Throat” may have been more composite than a single source — a literary device to infuse drama in All the President’s Men, the book Woodward wrote with Post colleague Carl Bernstein about their Watergate reporting.

It has long been suspected, though never confirmed, that “Deep Throat” was a composite.

Adrian Havill, the author of Deep Truth, a deliciously scathing biography of Woodward and Bernstein, speculated that “Deep Throat” was “a hybrid of three or four main sources.”

Edward Jay Epstein, in his fine 1976 essay about the Post and Watergate, stated he believed “Deep Throat” was “a composite character.”

More recently, James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, speculated in a book review that “‘Deep Throat’ was more than just Mark Felt.”

Prodded by his family, Felt came forward in 2005 and pronounced himself the source who had been “Deep Throat.” Woodward soon confirmed Felt’s self-disclosure.

But Felt was frail and suffering from dementia. He was forgetful and seldom able to carry on prolonged interviews. (Woodward quoted Felt’s daughter as saying in 2002 that Felt “goes in and out of lucidity.”)

Sussman, as he has on other occasions, asserts that “Deep Throat wasn’t an important source at all” to the Post.

“He was nice to have around, helpful on occasion,” Sussman writes, adding that Woodward and Bernstein “have blown up Felt’s importance for almost four decades or nodded in assent when others did….”

Sussman acknowledges he didn’t know that Felt was supposedly “Deep Throat” before 2005. He also notes that Felt, who died in 2008, often denied having been “Deep Throat.”

And that’s true. In a memoir published in 1979, Felt insisted: “I never leaked information to Woodward and Bernstein or to anyone else!”

Years later, Felt told a Connecticut newspaper that had he been “Deep Throat,” he “would have done it better.”

Felt may have been a liar. Or, as Sussman says, he may not have fully understood that he was considered the source whom the Post referred to as “Deep Throat.”

Sussman’s commentary was prompted by a recent book titled Leak, which claims that Felt was a crucial if sometimes duplicitous source for Woodward on Watergate. (Bernstein, by the way, met Felt only weeks Felt’s death.)

Sussman asserts that Leak “is way off base when it comes to the Post.”

The author of Leak, Max Holland, “accepts a key part of the Watergate myth that really is hokum – that Deep Throat was an important, sine qua non source for the Washington Post,” Sussman writes.

“He not only accepts it; it is his basic premise. This is where his book runs into trouble.”

So why does all this matter now, nearly 40 years after the Watergate scandal began unfolding?

It matters because the mystery of “Deep Throat” was central to establishing the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, the enduring if misleading notion that Woodward and Bernstein, through their dogged reporting, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

The identity of “Deep Throat,” as I write in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, was the subject of a 30-year, post-Watergate guessing game — a guessing game that “provided periodic and powerful reminders about the Post and its Watergate coverage, serving to keep Woodward and Bernstein in the public eye far longer than they otherwise would have been.”

Those reminders helped solidify the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate, which to this day endures as the dominant thought misleading narrative about the country’s greatest political scandal.

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