Deep Throat comes out – revisiting Watergate

Rodney Tiffen, The University of Sydney

The last great secret from Watergate has been revealed 31 years after the scandal forced President Nixon to become the first US President to resign. Ninety-one year old W. Mark Felt, formerly the second in command at the FBI, has admitted that he was ‘Deep Throat’, the most sensitive source for the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward. It brings to a conclusion a ‘three-decade-long whodunit rich in detail, psychology and irony’ (Corn & Goldberg 2005). The identity of Deep Throat had excited more speculation than any other topic in contemporary political journalism, with at least a couple of dozen candidates nominated, including such luminaries as former president George Bush senior, former Secretary of State Al Haig, and the current Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Watergate’s public career began as a minor court hearing.

The initial investigative reporting by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein relied heavily on anonymous sources, but as one of their editors, Barry Sussman, later wrote (1997), the editors who were risking so much of the paper’s credibility on the stories knew who the sources were. But there was one source that Woodward asked to keep secret even from the editors and this source was dubbed ‘Deep Throat’ as an in-house joke. The name came from a famous pornographic film of the period. ‘Deep Throat’ made its public debut in Bernstein and Woodward’s book about their Watergate reporting, All the President’s Men (1974), but he became particularly famous because of the subsequent film, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the two reporters, and the wonderfully evocative scenes between Woodward and Deep Throat, played by Hal Holbrook. Indeed Deep Throat’s most famous line ‘follow the money’ came from the film, scripted by William Goldman, not from real life (Rich 2005), Hollywood displacing history.

The frenzy of comment that followed Mark Felt’s coming out was ‘a kind of political Rorschach test’ (Wallsten 2005) with people from all shades of the political spectrum projecting on to the revelation their own pet theories and concerns. Amid the welter of resulting stories, many of the legends surrounding Watergate have been revived. But as some of these theories have only the most tenuous relationship to the facts, it is timely to revisit the central elements of how the scandal developed before considering how the latest revelation might revise the competing interpretations.

The Developing Scandal

On 17 June 1972 five burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington DC. They included James McCord, the security director for the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP). In September these five were indicted for the burglary, as were E. Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy, both former CIA officials whose ties to the operation were immediately established.

Watergate’s public career began as a minor court hearing. The Post reported the unusual features of the court case probingly. Nevertheless without the investigative work by Woodward and Bernstein, it probably would have remained a passing curiosity, a third rate burglary attempt in the words of White House press secretary, Ron Ziegler. Ziegler’s dismissive public stance was in direct contrast to the frantic action inside the administration to contain the damage by seeking to arrange ‘hush money’ for the defendants and limit the investigation. Nixon, his two closest aides H. R. Haldeman and John Erlichmann, known not so affectionately as his Prussian Guard, as well as presidential appointees John Dean and Charles Colson were immediately involved in orchestrating a cover-up. Despite the obviously suspicious links of the defendants, White House and Republican officials denied any connections to the robbery, and these blanket denials were rarely publicly challenged or questioned.

The scandal received very little media coverage during Nixon's re-election campaign.

It was only from early August on that the investigative reporting by Woodward and Bernstein transformed understandings of the event. In seven watershed articles between 1 August and 25 October (Crouse 1973, p. 309), they were:

  • the first to make a connection between the burglary and the White House;

  • the first to show that Nixon campaign funds were involved;

  • the first to describe the ‘laundering’ of campaign money in Mexico;

  • the first to expose former Attorney General John Mitchell, now campaign director for Nixon, as involved in illegal activities;

  • the first to involve former presidential appointments secretary Dwight Chapin;

  • the first to explain that political espionage and sabotage were an integral part of the Nixon re-election campaign;

  • the first to trace the Watergate affair to the very doors of the President’s Oval Office—to his White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman.

Despite the Post’s efforts, ‘Watergate had no visible effect on the 1972 Presidential election’ (Lang & Lang 1983, p. ix). On 11 November, Nixon won one of the most crushing election victories ever over the Democratic contender George McGovern. He won 60 per cent of the vote, and carried 49 out of 50 states. A poll in September showed 48 per cent of Americans had not heard of Watergate at all (Lang & Lang 1983, p. 32). The press as a whole was not responsive to the story, and, severely qualifying later celebrations of the media’s role, the scandal received very little coverage in most outlets. For the 1972 election, 71 per cent of American newspapers endorsed Nixon and only five per cent McGovern. ‘Papers endorsing Nixon put Watergate stories on the front page at half the rate of the non-endorsers’ (Schudson 1993, p. 107–108).

After the election, the story died again for a period. In January and February 1973, new investigative work by Seymour Hersh of the New York Times as well as by Woodward and Bernstein brought revelations about White House payments to the defendants (Downie 1976, p. 46). These stories made it more difficult for any cover-up to be successful, but the amount, sources, and nature of news coverage were about to change as the scandal grew.

After the first months of 1973, in contrast to 1972, there was often saturation news coverage, but overwhelmingly the media’s role was less initiating than reactive. Investigative reporting by the press was less important in sustaining media attention to the scandal than the pincer movement of legal and congressional investigations. The legal side of the investigation began with local court hearings under Judge John J. Sirica, and in May after the scandal had developed great momentum, the new Attorney-General Eliot Richardson appointed a special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, to investigate its many dimensions. In May Nixon also came under increased political pressure when a Congressional inquiry started under Senator Sam Ervin. Crucially its hearings were televised, and quickly became compulsive viewing.

The first great public climax of the scandal was 30 April 1973.

The trial of the Watergate Seven began on 8 January 1973. Three days later, Hunt pleaded guilty, as did four others on 15 January. On 30 January, McCord and Liddy, who had pleaded not guilty, were convicted. Judge Sirica had been very dissatisfied with the unforthcoming attitude of the defendants, and deliberately delayed sentencing to encourage them to say who had hired them (Williams 1998, p. 17). In late March, McCord wrote to the judge claiming the defendants had pleaded guilty under duress, that they had committed perjury, and that others were involved. He claimed that the President’s Counsel John Dean had urged them to behave in this way.

Fortuitously Congress was also able to conduct its own investigations because the acting director of the FBI, Nixon appointee L. Patrick Gray III, was facing confirmation hearings and Senators were able to use this forum to quiz him about Watergate, and about allegations that the FBI was seeking to stifle the investigation. The FBI had had only one director in its whole history, but after J. Edgar Hoover died in May 1972, Nixon was determined to appoint a sympathetic and pliable replacement. The hapless Gray’s testimony produced two startling revelations. The first was that he had given John Dean full access to the Watergate investigation, providing him with interview reports, and even allowing him to sit in on interviews. The other was that he had destroyed the contents of Howard Hunt’s safe. The White House was furious at Gray’s inability to perjure himself more effectively. Gray was getting into deeper and deeper political trouble, but ‘in a memorable Watergate phrase, Erlichman advised Dean “Let him hang there; let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind”’ (Williams 1998, p. 18). Gray resigned as acting director of the FBI on 27 April 1973.

With pressure building inside the White House because of the unravelling cover-up, Nixon made a nation-wide television address on 30 April to announce the dismissal of Dean, and the resignations of his two closest advisers, Haldeman and Erlichman, and of Attorney-General Kleideist. This was the first great public climax of the scandal, by far the most dramatic indication of its seriousness and potential to wreak further damage.

The first months of 1973 had seen the solidarity of the previous year collapse, and a series of defections fed the scandal’s momentum. As political expedience dictated that the core groups sacrifice the outer ones, the process created new groups of losers. Once sacrificed, their interests were reversed. Now instead of mutual protection, self-protection led them to implicate the next layer in. The logic is seen most starkly in the case of John Dean. As the cover-up that he had helped to orchestrate in 1972 started to crack in early 1973, Dean thought that he was being set up by others in the White House, and was no doubt mindful of how they had turned on Gray. So in early April he began co-operating with Watergate prosecutors. In June, a conveniently leaked report in the Washington Post revealed that Dean had told investigators that he had discussed the Watergate cover-up with Nixon at least 35 times. Most spectacularly on 25 June, Dean made a seven hour opening statement to the Ervin Committee, in which he detailed conversations with Nixon about finding hush money for the defendants and that in March he had told Nixon Watergate was a cancer on the presidency.

By mid year Nixon’s presidency was engulfed by the scandal, but his position was soon to become much worse. On 13 July came perhaps the single most important turning point in its development, when presidential appointments secretary Alexander Butterfield revealed to the senate committee that since 1971 Nixon had recorded all conversations and telephone calls in his office. This offered the prospect of direct evidence about Nixon’s knowledge, and the chance to definitively resolve the issues in dispute. Both the Ervin committee and special prosecutor Cox sought access to the relevant tape recordings. Nixon refused to hand over the tapes, pleading executive privilege. A series of showdowns in legal and political arenas followed.

By mid-1973, Nixon's presidency was engulfed by the scandal.

As his ‘compromise’ offers were rejected, Nixon decided to take drastic action. On 20 October, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon ordered his Attorney-General Eliot Richardson to fire Cox and abolish the office of special prosecutor. Richardson refused and resigned, as did his deputy, William Rucklehaus. Finally Solicitor-General Robert Bork—later nominated by President Reagan to become a Supreme Court judge, but rejected by the Senate (Baker 2005)—did the dirty deed. Cox’s parting words were that America would now see ‘whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men’ (Schudson 1993, p. 100), a phrase first used in the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, to encapsulate the republican ideal that no one was above the law.

Forty-four Watergate-related resolutions were introduced into the House of Representatives in the next few days, including 22 calling for impeachment (Schudson 1993, p. 12), the first time this sanction had been officially raised. Cox was replaced as special prosecutor by Leon Jaworski, and a weakened Nixon had to yield much of what he had been trying to resist. Investigators now had access to particular tapes, but there were ongoing disputes about which ones they could examine.

In November Nixon’s crisis deepened still further when the Senate revealed that there was an unexplained eighteen and a half minute gap on the tape of his talk with Haldeman on 20 June 1972. (This revelation had been foreshadowed in the Washington Post, Felt’s last great leak to Woodward.) In the midst of these accusations, Nixon appeared before an audience of Associated Press Managing Editors Association at Disney World in Florida, and told them: ‘People have the right to know whether their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook’ (Schudson 1993, p. 18). This occasioned my favourite Watergate cartoon. Cartoonist Oliphant had Nixon solemnly pronouncing he was not a crook, with in the background Disney cartoon characters the Beagle Boys turning somersaults and proclaiming ‘neither are we, neither are we’.

By the beginning of 1974 there were increasing calls for Nixon to be impeached, but no guarantee yet that such a move would succeed. In February the House of Representatives charged the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether there were grounds to impeach Nixon. And still the battles for the tapes continued.

On 30 April 1974, exactly a year after he had accepted the resignations of Erlichman and Haldeman, the White House released more than 1,200 pages of edited transcripts of the president’s conversations in a bid to stop the constant pressure for access to more tapes. These immediately made Nixon a laughing stock. ‘The president’s talk was foul, vengeful, [and] full of ethnic slurs’ (Schudson 1993, p. 20). The frequent insertion of (expletive deleted) in the transcripts became an international joke. As so often in scandals, the exposure of backstage behaviour, while not directly touching on the central accusations, had greatly weakened the political position of the accused (Tiffen 1999).

Nevertheless the release of the transcripts did not stop the legal efforts to get the tapes themselves, and on 24 July the Supreme Court ruled that he had to hand over tapes of 64 White House conversations. Three days later the House Judiciary Committee began passing three articles of impeachment. In early August, Nixon released transcripts of three conversations he had with Haldeman six days after the break-in. The 23 June tape became known as the smoking gun, because it reveals Nixon’s plans to get the FBI to abandon its investigation of the break-in. There had still been eleven Republican members of the judiciary committee voting against impeachment, but after this even these diehards announced they would abandon Nixon.

On 8 August 1974, Nixon became the first US president to resign.

Finally on 8 August 1974, almost 26 months after the break-in, and about 20 months after his landslide re-election, Nixon became the first US president to resign. He was replaced by his Vice President Gerald Ford, who, fortunately for America, had replaced the previous Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who had been removed from office after the exposure of his own corruption. On 9 September, Ford pardoned Nixon of any offences committed while president. Nixon fared better than his subordinates, more than 30 of whom were convicted of Watergate related offences, and many of whom spent time in jail.

Competing Theories of Watergate

Because Watergate was so politically momentous and had no political precedents remotely resembling it, it has naturally attracted a range of competing interpretations. Many accounts celebrate the role of the press. ‘At its broadest, the myth of journalism in Watergate asserts that two young Washington Post reporters brought down the president of the United States. This is a myth of David and Goliath’ (Schudson 1993, p. 104), and of truth triumphing over power. The most influential counter-position was taken by Edward Jay Epstein (1975), who in a famous essay argued against the centrality of the press, saying that the great untold story in Watergate was the government’s investigation of itself.

Epstein largely demolishes a straw man of his own making. To be sure, the media did not achieve their impact in isolation. Indeed as the above account makes clear, the process of removing Nixon from office was protracted, and there was a long gap between the bulk of the investigative reporting and the final resignation. Nevertheless these other judicial and political forces acted differently because of the stimulus of media reports and because of the intense public focus on them. Without the press, the attempts to stifle the FBI’s investigation may well have succeeded. Yet the impact of the investigative reporting was not immediately decisive and was far from inevitable. The news reports fed into political and judicial processes, which then followed their own logic, generating new developments and revelations—not least the whole saga of the tapes, and the evidence they revealed—which in turn were covered extensively in the news media. So there were many intervening factors between David’s stone and Goliath’s fall.

The political right and left have competing conspiracy theories. Nixon loyalists, such as his former speech-writer Pat Buchanan (1997), see Watergate as ‘the overthrow of an elected president by a media and political elite … driven by hatred.’ Such accounts commonly substitute speculation about ulterior motives for a consideration of the evidence about the central events. They also suffer from the fatal weakness of ignoring the virtual unanimity of the ultimate verdict against Nixon, of how the Supreme Court voted unanimously, of the strength of bipartisanship in the congress that he had to resign, and of the strength of public opinion (Lang & Lang 1983).

From the left there have been claims that the CIA or some other right-wing group wanted to get rid of Nixon. This view was recently revived by Phillip Adams (2005) in The Australian. ‘The weapon Deep Throat chose for Nixon’s assassination wasn’t a rifle, handgun or bomb. It was a progressive newspaper.’ Adams claims that ‘for decades some senior people at the paper refused to celebrate their role … They felt the Post had been conned, manipulated, used.’ The ultra-conservatives detested Nixon, and ‘so they provided a paper trail that, day by day and headline by headline, would persuade the Post to destroy him.’

The political left and right have competing conspiracy theories.

This account is at least as problematic as Buchanan’s. None of the key claims has any supporting evidence. I have never heard or seen anyone from the Washington Post suggest that they were conned or express any regret about their role. However, apart from grossly exaggerating the paper’s role in Nixon’s fall, it also exaggerates Deep Throat’s role in the Post’s reporting. The mystery over Deep Throat’s identity has given him a misleading centrality in accounts of Watergate. As a Washington Post editor intimately involved in the paper’s coverage, Barry Sussman, recalled: ‘Deep Throat barely figured in the Post’s Watergate coverage’ (1997). One report said that Woodward and Felt met seven times during the first sixteen months of Watergate reporting (‘Source an “incurable gossip”’ 2005). Felt seems to have made few revelations to the reporter. Rather his role was to confirm what they knew, and to reassure them of the importance and dimensions of the scandal. For example, a few weeks after the break-in, Felt told Woodward that ‘the White House regards the stakes … as much higher than anyone outside perceives’ (‘Following the Felt trail’ 2005).

A second central problem with the Adams view is that it imagines that the fall of Nixon immediately brought more conservative rule, and it overlooks the more progressive inter-regnum that followed. ‘Watergate did not just spell the end of the Nixon presidency. It started a chain reaction of investigations and prosecutions that eventually exposed all manner of wrongdoing by the FBI and CIA: black bag jobs, illegal mail opening and CIA plots to assassinate foreign leaders’ (Thomas 2005). 1976 brought the election of the most moral president of the last couple of generations—Jimmy Carter—and also of a congress that contested presidential/executive authority much more than any in the recent past. In the short-term, Watergate led to many political reforms, including, much to the discomfort of the ultra-conservatives, greater public oversight of intelligence agencies and attempts to clean up US politics, including campaign finance reform.

Carter had many substantial strengths, but he also fatally lacked the necessary political skills to succeed in the Washington politics he encountered. His defeat in 1980 ushered in the Reagan counter-revolution. ‘The Reagan presidency saw a renewed build up of the military and an “unleashing” of the CIA, as well as stirring rhetoric about renewed American pride’ (Thomas 2005). Reagan’s presidency let forth more reactionary political forces than Nixon had, but because he lacked Nixon’s personal defects (his paranoia and mean-spiritedness) he was able to charm his way through. None of this later triumph of conservatism, however, should be attributed to the Washington Post’s reporting of Watergate or to Deep Throat’s alleged omnipotence.

Deep Throat’s Identity—Contemporary Reactions and Historical Revisions

Felt’s coming out illuminates some of the journalism of the early Watergate scandal. Most simply and fundamentally, his public identification as ‘Deep Throat’ enhances Woodward and Bernstein’s credibility. It confirmed that ‘Deep Throat’ existed as they had said, and was not, as some had speculated, a composite of several sources or even an invention. For three decades, they and their editor Ben Bradlee, honoured their commitment not to reveal Deep Throat’s identity while he was alive. Moreover Felt, as the deputy head of the FBI, and in charge of the agency’s Watergate investigation, was at least as much as any other individual in a position to know the details of the crime and the cover-up, and so was as close to an authoritative source as one could be.

Felt’s coming confirmed that ‘Deep Throat’ existed.

Just as the revelation of Felt’s role put an end to the decades-old guessing game, so in the subsequent media coverage a new game started, of the near misses in exposing him and the ironic light it throws on his own role. There is a wonderful memo from February 1973, when Felt was charged with tracking down the leaks to the Post, where he damns the Woodward and Bernstein stories and speculates on their possible sources. Similarly at one stage in 1972, Haldeman told Nixon that it was Felt who was leaking to the Post. When Nixon asked what the ‘conveyor belt’ for the information was, Haldeman said that they had discovered it through someone in the Post’s legal department telling someone at Justice who told Dean. Nixon was worried that they could not act because Felt knew about earlier illegal operations the White House had mounted against the Pentagon Papers leaker, Daniel Ellsberg (Corn & Goldberg 2005). Typically they also mistakenly thought that Felt was Jewish—Nixon: ‘[Expletive], [the Bureau] put a Jew in there!’ Despite their apparent certainty then, later Haldeman later nominated Dean’s assistant Fred Fielding as Deep Throat, and Dean named about four candidates over the years, none of them Felt.

Felt’s motives have been widely explored. Liberals tended to emphasise Felt’s concern over Nixon’s attempts to politicise the Bureau and to stifle the Watergate investigation. Conservatives tended to emphasise personal bitterness because he had been passed over as Hoover’s replacement for the outsider Patrick Gray. Gray himself never suspected that his deputy was leaking, and said in 2005 that the news hit him like a sledgehammer. He died a few weeks later, often later in life describing his ‘gravest mistake’ as getting involved with Nixon (Sullivan 2005). In probing Felt’s mixture of motives, it is important to remember that he had a pre-existing relationship with Woodward (Woodward 2005), who had first met him while still in the Navy, and that most of their meetings were at the reporter’s initiative not Felt’s. In his notebooks, Woodward referred to Felt as ‘MF’, my friend. Felt apparently felt deeply conflicted about his role, repeatedly denying he was Deep Throat even to his family and years after the event. In public testimony, he denounced Deep Throat’s role as ‘terrible’, and that it would have been ‘contrary to my responsibility as a loyal employee’ (Kurtz 2005).

Many of the participants in Watergate have died in the intervening 30 years, but one survivor Charles Colson figured ubiquitously in television coverage of reactions to Deep Throat’s identity. Colson had been Nixon’s special counsel and directly involved with the Watergate burglars. He condemned Felt for ‘dishonouring the confidence of the President of the United States’. According to Rich (2005), the television shows simply identified him as a former White House counsel, and none mentioned that Colson had been convicted and spent time in jail for his crimes. He was responsible for preparing Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, at one stage proposed bombing the liberal Brookings Institution, and exulted in how successful he had been in intimidating the television networks in their coverage of Nixon. On his wall he had the slogan ‘If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow’. This man described Felt’s behaviour as ‘undignified’.

Watergate also had a contemporary resonance in that two of the most powerful figures in the Bush White House, Cheney and Rumsfeld, had been junior figures in the Nixon White House. Neither was implicated in Watergate, and both had their careers boosted by promotions brought on by the clearing of the ranks above them. In fact they co-operated in persuading President Ford to veto the freedom of information bill that Congress proposed in the wake of Watergate. Cheney ‘has spoken of using his current position to restore powers of the presidency that he believes were diminished as a result of Watergate and the Vietnam War’ (Wallsten 2005).

Many of the participants in Watergate have died in the intervening 30 years.

Rumsfeld was not ready to praise Felt or anyone who leaked: ‘Anyone who sees wrongdoing … who works for the United States government, has an obligation to report that wrongdoing to the Department of Justice or to the proper authorities in the department’ (Wallsten 2005). This typically duplicitous formulation neatly overlooks that during Watergate the proper channels were blocked at the top. This advice would have amounted to reporting wrongdoing to the wrongdoers.

One effect, hopefully, of the coverage of Felt’s belated admission was to educate Americans anew about this scandal. Three years ago on Watergate’s 30th anniversary, an American ABC poll found two thirds of Americans couldn’t explain what the scandal was (Rich 2005). The last three American presidents who won re-election—Nixon, Reagan and Clinton—all found that their second terms were coloured by scandal—Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Monica Lewinsky (or zippergate). Will recent history repeat itself, and George W. Bush also become embroiled in scandal?


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Rodney Tiffen is Associate Professor in the Discipline of Government and International Relations in the School of Economics and Political Science at The University of Sydney. He is author of Diplomatic Deceits. Government, Media and East Timor; Scandals. Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia; News and Power; The News from Southeast Asia; and numerous articles on mass media and Australian politics.

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