Did Bob Woodward lunch with Deep Throat in 1999?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
May 2 2002 10:29 PM

Why Did Bob Woodward Lunch With Mark Felt in 1999?

Was it to ask if he could unmask Deep Throat?

As Chatterbox noted yesterday, the best guess going about the identity of Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's crucial but anonymous Watergate informer, has long been W. Mark Felt, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In his haste to write yesterday's item, Chatterbox failed to chase down a tip he'd received (apparently first published in the Globe tabloid) that Woodward actually had lunch with Felt within the last few years. Today's Washington Times explains (in its "Inside the Beltway" column) that this information comes from a new book by Ronald Kessler, The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI, due to be published next week. Like James Mann, who published the definitive Deep Throat piece 10 years ago in the Atlantic, Kessler worked at the Post during Watergate (he left in 1985), though Chatterbox doesn't know whether Kessler, like Mann, will speak out of school about what Woodward told colleagues at the time. Here, according to the Washington Times, is how Kessler relates the story of the Woodward-Felt lunch:

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In the summer of 1999, [Bob] Woodward showed up unexpectedly at the home of Felt's daughter, Joan, in Santa Rosa, California, north of San Francisco, and took him to lunch, Joan Felt, who was taking care of him at her home, told me.

She recalled that Woodward made his appearance just after a mini-controversy broke in the press late July 1999 about whether Bernstein had told his then-wife, Nora Ephron, that Felt was Deep Throat. Woodward had been interviewing former FBI officials for a book he was writing on Watergate.

However, now confused because of the effects of a stroke, Felt was in no shape to provide credible information. Joan said her father greeted Woodward like an old friend, and their mysterious meeting appeared to be more of a celebration than an interview, lending support to the notion that Felt was, in fact, Deep Throat.

"Woodward just showed up at the door and said he was in the area," Joan Felt said. "He came in a white limousine, which parked at a schoolyard about 10 blocks away. He walked to the house. He asked if it was OK to have a martini with my father at lunch, and I said it would be fine."

A few caveats are in order. Chatterbox interviewed Felt in the summer of 1999, too, and found him fairly lucid, if annoyed to be asked once again if he was Deep Throat. (Maybe he had his good days and his bad days.) If Woodward was interviewing former FBI officials for a new book about Watergate, that would of course provide ample justification for Woodward to seek out Felt, even if Felt wasn't Deep Throat. (Felt was, after all, the No. 3 guy at the FBI during Watergate.) In 1999, Felt denied to Chatterbox that he was Deep Throat, just as Felt denied it, more recently, to Kessler (with the difference being that by the time Kessler asked him, Felt apparently had difficulty remembering exactly who Bob Woodward was).

Still, the timing is intriguing. When Woodward came calling, Felt had just been the subject of a flurry of stories about Chase Culeman-Beckman, a 19-year-old from Port Chester, N.Y., who'd revealed to the Hartford Courant that Bernstein's son, Jacob, 11 years earlier had blurted out at summer camp that Deep Throat was W. Mark Felt. (Click here for the full story.) Carl Bernstein and his ex-wife, Nora Ephron, quickly stepped in to explain that Bernstein had never told his wife or son Deep Throat's identity and that Ephron had just always guessed it to be Felt. But Ephron's intuition on this matter has to carry some weight, and it seems logical that in the aftermath of this awkward episode, Woodward would have felt the need to explore with Felt whether it was time to reveal their secret. Based on what the Washington Times passed on from Kessler's book, though, Kessler's evidence is not dispositive.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.