It’s been five years since W. Mark Felt outed himself as the shadowy “Deep Throat” source of the Watergate scandal, the former No. 2 official at the FBI who in places like parking garages periodically passed information to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.
Remarkably, Felt’s identity as the elusive “Deep Throat” had remained a secret (and was the subject of often-intense speculation) for more than 30 years, until Vanity Fair published an article on May 31, 2005, disclosing Felt’s “Deep Throat” role.
Felt was then 91 and in declining health. He died in 2008.
As I write in Getting It Wrong, my forthcoming book about media-driven myths, the prolonged guessing game about the identity of “Deep Throat” help solidify the notion that the Washington Post was central to uncovering Watergate scandal. (Stanley I. Kutler, the leading historian of Watergate, once wrote that the “endless, pointless game of trying to identify Deep Throat” was a distraction from the lessons of Watergate.)
Getting It Wrong includes a chapter addressing and debunking what I call the heroic-journalist myth of Watergate–that the reporting of Woodward and his Post colleague, Carl Bernstein, brought down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
I write that the “guessing game about the identity of the ‘Deep Throat’ source 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.”
I also note:
“They and the mysterious ‘Deep Throat’ source became central figures” in what the Philadelphia Inquirer described as “the parlor game that would not die. … With each passing year, as ‘Deep Throat’s’ cloak of anonymity remained securely in place, his perceived role in Watergate gained gravitas.”
“And so,” I write, “… did the roles of Woodward and Bernstein.”
Although many people were named in the guessing game about “Deep Throat,” Felt always ranked high on the roster of likely candidates. As I note in Getting It Wrong, speculation about who was “Deep Throat” began in June 1974, with a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, and continued periodically for the next 31 years.
The Journal article appeared soon after publication of All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book about Watergate in which they introduced the furtive source they called “Deep Throat.” The Journal article described Felt as the top suspect.
But Felt repeatedly denied having been “Deep Throat.” He was quoted as saying in the Journal article in 1974:
“I’m just not that kind of person.”
He told the Hartford Courant newspaper in 1999 that he “would have been more effective” had he indeed been Woodward’s secretive source, adding:
“Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”
On the day Felt was confirmed to have been “Deep Throat,” his family issued a statement calling him “a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call of duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.”
But Felt hardly was such a noble character.
In his senior position at the FBI, Felt had authorized illegal burglaries as part of FBI investigations into leftists associated with the radical Weather Underground in the early 1970s.
Felt was convicted in 1980 on felony charges related to the break-ins but pardoned by President Ronald Reagan.
- The Post ‘took down a president’? That’s a myth
- Journalists changing history: A double dose of media myth
- A trope that knows few bounds: The hero-journalist myth