Was Fred Fielding Deep Throat?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 28 2003 7:57 PM

Was Fred Fielding Deep Throat?

The evidence is surprisingly strong.

Chatterbox is looking at a January 1981 clipping from the Washington Post headlined, "Nixon Ex-Aide Named Counsel to Reagan." The ex-aide in question was Fred Fielding, whom William Gaines and his journalism class at the University of Illinois have identified as Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's famous Watergate source. Deep Throat's identity is known only to Woodward; his co-author, Carl Bernstein; their editor, Ben Bradlee; and Throat. (Serious Deep Throat scholars always call Deep Throat "Throat.") Bradlee once famously claimed that you could discover Deep Throat's identity by feeding all known information about him into a computer. Taking that as a challenge, Gaines more or less did so. The computer named Fielding.

In the past, Chatterbox has expressed skepticism toward Gaines' project. The students' initial speculation that Deep Throat was Pat Buchanan was patently ridiculous. The case for Buchanan on paper is better than you might think, but had they looked up from their printouts and observed Buchanan's near-pathological commitment to personal loyalty, they would have understood how poorly cast he was for the role. (Buchanan's own Deep Throat candidate is Lowell Weicker, a bizarre choice that mainly reflects Buchanan's unwillingness to accuse any former White House comrade of behavior that he considers beneath contempt.) Chatterbox also felt the students (in concert with former Nixon White House counsel and Deep Throat sleuth John Dean) had dismissed the "G-man" Theory—the idea, most forcefully argued in the Atlantic by Jim Mann, that Deep Throat had to work at the FBI—rather too hastily and with far too little evidence.

But during the past year, Chatterbox has been rethinking his commitment to the G-man Theory in light of two pieces of evidence. The first is Dean's and the Gaines group's observation that a November 1973 Woodward and Bernstein Post story was sourced anonymously to "White House sources." That's significant because in All the President's Men, Woodward and Bernstein say that Deep Throat was a source on this story. That would make Deep Throat a White House aide, wouldn't it? The second troubling piece of evidence, flagged by Brown political scientist Darrel M. West, was a Playboy interview that J. Anthony Lukas conducted with Woodward in 1989. In that interview, Woodward flatly denied that Deep Throat was someone in the "intelligence community." On first considering these two inconvenient facts, Chatterbox argued that they didn't put the G-man Theory out of business. Over time, though, Chatterbox has been more inclined to think that they do.

The beauty of the Fred Fielding theory is that it can accommodate the most forceful part of Mann's argument—that Deep Throat, whoever he was, had ready access to FBI files. Both Dean and Fielding (who was Dean's deputy) did have an appallingly vast knowledge of what the FBI knew, and Gaines' class has painstakingly matched records from the Nixon White House showing that Dean and Fielding knew about particular incidents with passages in All the President's Men in which Deep Throat tips off Woodward about those same incidents. "I think they really have added new information," says Ron Rosenbaum, who during the period of Watergate revelations wrote a Village Voice column titled "Wallowing in Watergate." Gaines and Co. also found intriguing evidence suggesting that Woodward and Bernstein strained to keep Fielding out of their Post stories, which is just how one would pamper a highly valuable source. And it's hard to dismiss the stated opinion of H.R. Haldeman—who was in an excellent position to know—that Fielding was Deep Throat. (One more thing: Why is Carl Bernstein—who is well-practiced at parrying Deep Throat theories—reacting so peculiarly to Gaines' declaration? He went ballistic, saying Gaines "should be disaccredited.")

Dean and Leonard Garment  (who was Fielding's boss after Dean left the White House) both wrote Deep Throat books arguing, among other things, that Fielding wasn't Deep Throat. (Dean continues to believe it wasn't Fielding. "Not even close," he e-mailed Chatterbox today.) The evidence Dean and Garment used in their respective books to clear Fielding was very weak. Garment let Fielding off the hook with the observation that Fielding, though "shrewd enough for the role," was not the sort to be "point man in the enterprise of exposing his friend John Dean. And world-weariness is not Fred's style." Here is Dean's evidence:

When Bob Haldeman speculated that it might be my former deputy, Fred Fielding, it caused a slight problem for Fred, who [in 1981] was under consideration to become White House counsel for President Reagan. Woodward, however, assured the Reagan people that it wasn't Fred. I learned this from Fielding [italics Chatterbox's].

You don't have to be a game theoretician to figure out that if Fielding is Deep Throat, he lied to Dean.

Fielding is said to be an extremely charming man, and Chatterbox assumes Dean and Garment are very fond of him. If they knew Fielding to be Deep Throat, would they actively protect him by writing books full of lies? Chatterbox doesn't think so. Writing a book requires a lot of effort, and neither Dean nor Garment likely wants to go down in history as a liar. (Incidentally, we should be clear that Fielding, if he is Deep Throat, needs protection: As a practicing Washington attorney, Fielding could lose clients if he were shown to be a blabbermouth. Fielding declined to answer queries from Chatterbox by phone and e-mail.)

It is possible, though, to imagine that the Deep Throat obsession Dean and Garment share reflects some tormenting sense (possibly unconscious) that Deep Throat was right under their noses. As, of course, he would have been if Deep Throat were Fielding. Maybe they couldn't face the unpleasant truth that they'd been betrayed by their faithful deputy. But they could still feel driven to find the culprit all the same, while feeling such affection for and loyalty to Fielding that if Fielding told Dean that Woodward had cleared him, then, by golly, Woodward cleared him. End of discussion.

Which takes Chatterbox back to that January 1981 clipping from the Washington Post. It says Fielding has been named White House counsel to Ronald Reagan, and notes that Haldeman "speculated that Fielding was the mysterious 'Deep Throat' who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break the scandal. Fielding emphatically denied it." If, when this story was written, Woodward had already cleared Fielding in some public forum (as Garment's book claims he had), the Post would have been extremely remiss not to mention that. And if Woodward had cleared Fielding privately to a few key administration officials … well, you could argue the Post would have been remiss not to mention that, either. Setting aside the thorny ethical questions, it would have been weird for the Post to leave unanswered the "was Fielding Deep Throat" question if it knew a) that Fielding wanted that questioned answered; and b) that someone in the Reagan White House would be in a position to share that information with the public (as Fielding, via Dean, eventually did). Incidentally, in the 22 years since then, no Reagan White House official that Chatterbox is aware of has told the story of Woodward's papal blessing to Fielding. The simple explanation would be that Woodward never gave one.

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