Lying to protect Mark Felt from being exposed.
Bob Woodward is such a steadfast reporter that, when he writes a memoir, even Woodward's dirty linen isn't safe from exposure. In a June 2 Washington Post piece about his relationship with Mark Felt, Woodward describes his younger self as a near-parody of the classic Washington suck-up. As a Navy officer assigned to Washington in 1969,
I expended a great deal of energy trying to find things or people who were interesting. I had a college classmate who was going to clerk for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and I made an effort to develop a friendship with that classmate.
Not worth knowing at Yale, the classmate was self-evidently worth knowing now that he was working for a Washington big shot. Woodward met Felt, he writes, while waiting in the White House basement to deliver a package for Admiral Thomas Moorer (an assignment that sounds like it, too, was the product of assiduous apple-polishing). Felt was waiting there also:
He showed no interest in striking up a long conversation, but I was intent on it. I finally extracted from him the information that he was an assistant director of the FBI in charge of the inspection division, an important post under Director J. Edgar Hoover…. I was deferential, but I must have seemed very needy. He was friendly, and his interest in me seemed somehow paternal….I asked Felt for his phone number, and he gave me the direct line to his office.
It was love at first sight.
He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future, which now loomed more ominously as the date of my discharge from the Navy approached. At some point I called him, first at the FBI and then at his home in Virginia. I was a little desperate, and I'm sure I poured out my heart.
This is precisely the sort of unchecked personal fealty most people outside Washington imagine the Washington reporter-source relationship to consist of, and I swear, usually it doesn't. To Woodward, though, Felt was clearly a father figure.
Woodward's genius as a reporter, I submit, has consisted in large part of putting this glaring fault—an exaggerated deference to authority figures (his sources)—in the service of digging out facts that presidents don't want exposed (but the sources do). I wish I could put my vices to such good use! The question, though, is how far Woodward is willing to go to protect these daddy figures. In the case of Mark Felt, did he go too far? I think he did, in at least two cases:
The Cigarettes. Cigarettes are a Deep Throat motif throughout Woodward and Bernstein's book, All the President's Men. (Example: "Deep Throat was already there [at the prearranged meeting place, an underground garage], smoking a cigarette," page 130 of the 1974 hardcover edition.) What did Felt smoke and when did he smoke it? According to Felt, he didn't smoke at all; he told CBS News in June 1992 that he'd kicked the habit in 1943. Granted, in the same interview, Felt said that during Watergate he met with Woodward only once, and that when Woodward phoned he refused to cooperate—both totally false assertions, we now know. But whether or not Felt was a smoker was something that Felt's friends and family could be expected to know (unless Felt's second-biggest secret was that he was sneaking ciggies on the sly). Wouldn't lying about that seemingly trivial detail have been a giveaway to them that he was Deep Throat? Moreover, in August 1974, The Washingtonian's Jack Limpert quoted an unidentified Washington Post editor (yet another anonymous source!) as saying, "Woodward made a lot of Deep Throat smoking cigarettes, but I had the feeling that Deep Throat doesn't smoke." The editor doesn't say where he got that "feeling." Putting this all together, I conclude that Felt did not smoke when he met with Woodward, and that Woodward and Bernstein are therefore guilty of describing Felt falsely in their book.
The Intelligence-Agency Denial. In a 1979 Playboy interview with J. Anthony Lukas, Woodward flatly denied that Deep Throat was anyone inside the "intelligence community." Let's go, one more time, to the transcript:
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by Gerald Herbert/Associated Press.