The death of Mark Felt last week may not close the books on the greatest national political scandal of the past 100 years, but it does move the Watergate affair deeper into the mists of history.
Mr. Felt, a top-ranking FBI administrator in the early 1970s, disclosed three years ago that he was “Deep Throat,” the informant who helped steer Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toward the story of the corrupt means by which President Nixon won re-election in 1972. The story, broken incrementally over two years, led to Mr. Nixon’s resignation.
Though it may not silence those who criticized Mr. Felt as a traitor to the administration he served, an important distinction is sometimes overlooked in the story. Mr. Felt did not pass internal documents to the Woodward and Bernstein team or provide background quotes or reveal what those in the Nixon White House were plotting. Rather, he confirmed for the reporters what they had surmised from other investigative reporting, and nudged them back on course when the trail got cold.
The now famous “Follow the money” phrase was Mr. Felt’s directive to the two enterprising young reporters.
The reporters said they never expected the informant to take on the legendary stature that followed publication of their best-selling book, “All the President’s Men.” That stature may have been furthered by Hal Holbrook’s colorful portrayal of Deep Throat in the movie based on the book.
Interestingly, no one criticized Deep Throat (so nicknamed by Mr. Woodward for his manner of speaking, though the name also was an allusion to an infamous X-rated movie of the day) for his supposed treachery while his identity was closely guarded by the reporters. Other high-ranking Nixon officials were among those rumored to have been the informant — Alexander Haig, Pat Buchanan, John Dean and David Gergen.
But when Mr. Felt revealed that while he was at the FBI, the nation’s highest domestic law-enforcement agency, he was also leaving bread crumbs for reporters to follow to the rotting carcass that was the Nixon administration, some cried “traitor.” In fact, Mr. Felt struggled greatly over whether to assist the reporters, his children revealed. Ultimately, he must be seen as a whistleblower who, because he believed in the rule of law, leaned on the pillar of the First Amendment to help disclose Nixon’s abuses, which arguably subverted the electoral process in 1972.
The world needs more Deep Throats — those in power who are offended by government corruption and abuse of power. A Deep Throat may soon emerge in the case of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. May Mark Felt rest in peace, but his example of deep courage should remain very much alive.