Some wounds don’t fully heal because they’re too deep and cut too close to the bone. The story that Deep Throat was Mark Felt has torn open old wounds. Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and Chuck Colson—all at the top of their game 30 years ago, all very much in the game today—were passionate in their criticism, saying Mr. Felt has little to be proud of, was unprofessional, harmed his country. Ben Stein was blunt: Mr. Felt “broke the law, broke his oath, and broke his code of ethics.” Old Watergate hand Richard Ben-Veniste and the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen called Mr. Felt a hero. The old battle lines fall into place. As to the higher themes of the story, some were credulous. On the “Today” show yesterday Chris Matthews called those who have criticized Mr. Felt “hacks and flacks,” whereas reporters “are looking for the truth” and can be trusted. Glad he cleared that up.
Was Mr. Felt a hero? No one wants to be hard on an ailing 91-year-old man. Mr. Felt no doubt operated in some perceived jeopardy and judged himself brave. He had every right to disapprove of and wish to stop what he saw as new moves to politicize the FBI. But a hero would have come forward, resigned his position, declared his reasons, and exposed himself to public scrutiny. He would have taken the blows and the kudos. (Knowing both Nixon and the media, there would have been plenty of both.) Heroes pay the price. Mr. Felt simply leaked information gained from his position in government to damage those who were doing what he didn’t want done. Then he retired with a government pension. This does not appear to have been heroism, and he appears to have known it. Thus, perhaps, the great silence.
His motives were apparently mixed, as motives often are. He was passed over to replace J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI by President Nixon, who apparently wanted in that place not a Hoover man but a more malleable appointee. Mr. Felt was resentful. He believed Nixon meant to jeopardize the agency’s independence. Here we have a hitch in the story. The liberal story line on the FBI was that under Hoover it had too much independence, which Hoover protected with his famous secret files and a reputation for ruthlessness. Mr. Felt was a Hoover man who joined the FBI in 1942, when it was young; he rose under Hoover and never knew another director. When Hooverism was threatened, Mr. Felt moved. In this sense Richard Nixon was J. Edgar Hoover’s last victim. History is an irony factory.
Even if Mr. Felt had mixed motives, even if he did not choose the most courageous path in attempting to spread what he thought was the truth, his actions might be judged by their fruits. The Washington Post said yesterday that Mr. Felt’s information allowed them to continue their probe. That probe brought down a president. Ben Stein is angry but not incorrect: What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. Nixon’s ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events—the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions—millions—killed in his genocide. America lost confidence; the Soviet Union gained brazenness. What a terrible time. Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever.
And so the story that Mark Felt was Deep Throat exposes old fissures, and those fissures are alive and can burst open because a wound this size—all this death, all this loss—doesn’t really heal.
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Maybe the big lesson on Felt and Watergate is as simple as the law of unintended consequences. You do something and things happen and you don’t mean them to, and if you could take it back you would, but it’s too late. The repercussions have already repercussed. Mark Felt cannot have intended to encourage such epic destruction. He must have thought he was doing the right thing, protecting his agency and maybe getting some forgivable glee out of making Nixon look bad. But oh the implications. Literally: the horror.
Were there heroes of Watergate? Surely many unknown ones, those who did their best to be constructive and not destructive, those who didn’t think it was all about their beautiful careers. I’ll give you a candidate for great man of the era: Chuck Colson. Colson functioned in the Nixon White House as a genuinely bad man, went to prison and emerged a genuinely good man. He told the truth about himself in “Born Again,” a book not fully appreciated as the great Washington classic it is, and has devoted his life to helping prisoners and their families. He paid the price, told the truth, blamed no one but himself, and turned his shame into something helpful. Children aren’t dead because of him. There are children who are alive because of him.
Is the Deep Throat story over? Yes, in the sense that it will no longer be treated as a mystery. In spite of the million questions we’ll be hearing—and there are and will be many serious questions—the MSM will stick with the heroic narrative. Mr. Felt was Deep Throat. Deep Throat was a great man who helped a great newspaper put the stop to the lies and abuses of an out-of-control White House. End of story. Why? Because in celebrating this story in a certain way journalists of a certain age celebrate themselves. Because to bring unwelcome and unwanted skepticism to the narrative would be to deny 20th-century journalism—and 21st-century journalists—their great claim to glory. Because the MSM is still liberal, and the great Satan of all liberals, still, is Richard Nixon. And because, as Ben Bradlee might say, It’s a goddamn good story.
Or as they put it in yet another John Ford masterpiece, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”