Watergate's second smoking gun.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 1 2005 1:37 PM

Watergate's Second Smoking Gun

Mark Felt, nicotine fiend.

 

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).

—Timothy Noah, "Woodstein's Misdirections," June 2, 2005 in Slate.

Felt, you wily rascal! You were sneaking ciggies on the sly! In Bob Woodward's The Secret Manaccording to  USA Today's Mark Memmott, who's read it (I have not)—Bob Woodward reports that

Felt may not have been a "regular smoker" ... but he could have been the type of person who lights up a cigarette "in times of immense stress." Regardless, Woodward repeats that Felt did smoke during some of their clandestine meetings.

This revelation won't be helpful to the anti-smoking movement, which emphasizes the addictive nature of tobacco. (According to the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, "tobacco addiction is more severe than alcohol addiction and at least as binding as narcotic addiction.") Let's consider three possibilities:

Possibility 1: Felt really did stop smoking in 1943 and reverted to the habit only when meeting with Woodward in the garage (located, we now know, underneath 1401 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, Va.) or during other isolated moments of extreme stress. If this was the case, then Felt was the person many self-deluded cigarette addicts imagine themselves to be: Someone who can fall off the wagon now and then without resuming a daily habit. Such people are known to exist, but it's never good for the anti-smoking cause when one of them gets a lot of publicity.

Possibility 2: Felt wasn't just sneaking cigarettes with Woodward. He was running a covert op against his entire family, removing himself to a secure location on a daily basis to get his nicotine fix. If this was the case, the anti-tobacco movement must contend with the awkward reality that Felt has lived to the ripe old age of 91. Again, heavy smokers have been known to live long lives, but it doesn't do the anti-smoking movement much good to have such people in the spotlight.

Possibility 3: Felt kept smoking openly after 1943, in which case his friends and family would have known it and chosen not to tell the world that Felt fibbed to CBS News. If this (implausible) scenario is correct, then the public is witnessing the spectacle of Felt's family being rewarded for its enabling behavior with a movie-and-book deal. Maybe we'll learn more about this when the book comes out. (Incidentally, Tom Hanks? All wrong for Deep Throat. A reader e-mailed me a few weeks back with the ideal choice: Christopher Walken.)

There is a fourth possibility, one that does help the anti-smoking cause, but I consider it even less likely than Possibility 3. This is that Woodward really did make up the cigarette smoking, and he feels free to say Felt smoked in his presence because he knows Felt isn't compos mentis enough to contradict him. But this sort of underhanded and dishonest behavior would not be consistent with what we know about Woodward. I therefore accept Woodward's explanation of the cigarette anomaly and withdraw my earlier criticism. (Woodward still hasn't explained his lie to J. Anthony Lukas, though.) As for Felt … shame on you. It's a filthy habit.

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