The shallow debate about Deep Throat.

The shallow debate about Deep Throat.

The shallow debate about Deep Throat.

The history behind current events.
June 18 2002 5:56 PM

Watergate Misremembered

The shallow debate about Deep Throat.

Current opinion polls reveal that two-thirds of Americans do not know enough about Watergate to discuss it. Based on the tenor of the recent 30th-anniversary observance, it's not surprising. Once again, we have been subjected to an orgy of media fascination with Deep Throat. Deep Throat has become a convenient means of journalistic self-congratulation, a way the media reminds us of its place at the center of the Watergate constellation. Only the vigilant diligence of our intrepid reporters, we are told, parted the veil on Watergate and revealed the myriad abuses of power and the criminality of the Richard Nixon administration. It seems that false as well as plagiarized history abounds these days.


The perpetrator of the notion that the identity of Deep Throat matters appears on the Sunday morning talk show ghetto, smiling contentedly while refusing to divulge the identity of the culprit/hero but promising again to reveal the identity when he dies. An undergraduate class of journalism students has decided to play "investigative reporter" (now investigating the reporters) and has come to its own conclusion about Deep Throat. It was Pat Buchanan! Der treue Patrick! Angered that the "Old Man" had visited the hated Red Chinese, Buchanan retaliated and brought down the president. Well, anything is possible, but it hardly counts as evidence that the cagey, media-starved Buchanan—even CNN failed to rehire him after his last electoral venture—coyly remarked that he has "no comment." The mystery deepens.

But, what mystery? That someone leaked to Woodstein? How shocking! The Watergate leaks began almost immediately after the break-in. The National Archives houses more than 10,000 pages of raw FBI field reports that appeared in some Washington newspaper offices a few days after the burglary. J. Edgar Hoover had died in May, and the White House dispatched a loyal Nixonian, L. Patrick Gray, to serve as acting director. After June 20, Gray cooperated with the CIA to thwart the investigation and kept the White House informed of the bureau's activities. Hoover's loyal hierarchy remained in place, profoundly unhappy with events. So, the Hooverites did what all disgruntled bureaucrats do: They leaked. What distinguished the Washington Post from other papers was its eagerness to report the news as the investigation unfolded, which sometimes meant revealing unsubstantiated or simply wrong information. Still, the Post reported it.

The U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia promptly involved itself, led particularly by Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Silbert. That office had its own interests to pursue, and leaks were an established mechanism for pursuing them. Silbert himself seems to have leaked very little, carefully distancing himself from reporters, thereby earning their enmity and hostility. Another assistant U.S. attorney, however, could easily qualify as Aunt Blabby. By February 1973, Sen. Sam Ervin, six of his fellow senators, and a staff of more than 100 began the work of the Senate Select Committee. The SSC's brilliant efforts, eliciting testimony from the president's men, drove the soaps off the air and made Watergate a national phenomenon. John Mitchell, the former attorney general, campaign manager, and Nixon law partner, acknowledged the "White House horrors" of the previous four years and added that he would have done nearly anything to ensure Nixon's re-election. Obsequious Bob Haldeman desperately tried to portray himself as a grand fellow, not just "the President's son-of-a bitch." Who can forget the incredible arrogance of John Ehrlichman, who defiantly told the committee that no one really cared about presidential respect for the Constitution or the notion that a man's house is his castle? (Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge's drawling response: "Folks in my part of the country do.") Or that incredible virtuoso performance of memory by John W. Dean, formerly the ringmaster of the cover-up, who now decided to step forward and tell the truth? Richard Nixon himself ultimately vindicated the truth of Dean's testimony when we learned he had bugged himself and had to surrender his tapes.

The SSC did outstanding work but—eager to promote and advance its cause, aides, and maybe the senators themselves—regularly leaked. A few years ago, I appeared on a panel with Sam Dash and Fred Thompson, respectively the committee's majority and minority counsels. Thompson had become a movie actor of some note  (this was before he became a senator himself). When queried about Deep Throat by the audience, I responded that the question was inconsequential—there were many leakers. Shocked, the questioner turned to Dash and asked if that was true. "Leak?" Dash said; "I leaked all the time. Everybody did."

From May 1973 until Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Special Prosecutors Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski pursued Watergate through the legal process. They also regularly timed leaks to serve their purpose. Toward the end, the House Judiciary Committee held its impeachment hearings, and it, too, leaked like a sieve. And let us not forget the White House itself. Leonard Garment, an aide and sometime counsel to the president, regularly met with reporters. His daily calendar is replete with appointments that included the best-known of the Washington press corps. John Osborne of the New Republic was a particular favorite—and it is no accident that Osborne's reporting ("The Nixon Watch") easily outdistanced the work of his counterparts. Garment and others in the White House (most notably Chief of Staff Alexander Haig) regularly leaked, largely to defuse upcoming bad news—"spin control," we now call it. A few years ago, Garment tried to make a big splash with his own convoluted search for Deep Throat. The story had no legs whatsoever.

The real story of Watergate is infinitely richer and more complex than the press-centric version. We essentially know what happened, but we continue to unravel and expand the complexity, motivations, and meaning of Watergate. New materials emerge, and our insights grow. The new tapes, for example, amplify Nixon's determination to maintain the cover-up. John Dean famously talked with the president on March 21, 1973, warning him of a "cancer on the presidency" and urging him to come forth with the truth. But we now know that as soon as Dean left the Oval Office, Nixon called in his secretary and asked her for "substantial cash for a personal purpose"—that is, his need to pay "hush money" to the burglars. A real Watergate mystery—one worthy of our attention—centers on Nixon's stubborn refusal to "come clean," acknowledge his involvement in the Watergate crimes, and perhaps then, in typical Nixonian fashion, remind Americans that he—not George McGovern—had saved Americans from Communists, rapists, pot, and sundry other evils.

We now know from the new tapes that the president simply could not confront the truth about the "Plumbers" and his authorization of a break-in: "I ordered that they use any means necessary, including illegal means"; and then he hastily added: "The President of the United States can never admit this." His quarter-century pose as the champion of "law and order" simply trumped his moral center. Would that the media had devoted as much energy to opening Nixon's papers and tapes as it has to prattling about the potential identity of Deep Throat.

Important lessons about Watergate remain to be learned. The institutions of government, established ones as well as some resurrected for the moment, such as the special prosecutor, did their work and did it well. Congress behaved intelligently, soberly, and in bipartisan fashion, setting a pattern that sadly has not been followed in recent decades. The first 37 days of hearings by the Senate Select Committee stand as an exemplary congressional investigation. Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski, who led Texas Democrats for Nixon in 1972, should be remembered for his heroic achievement. The United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion (Justice Rehnquist recusing himself), delivered its most historic opinion on executive privilege when it ruled that Nixon had to surrender the subpoenaed tapes.

Those are the stories to remember. How they happened and why they happened are live historical questions, of far greater significance than the endless, pointless game of trying to identify Deep Throat.

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate. In 1996, he liberated the Nixon tapes in the case of Kutler v. National Archives and Richard M. Nixon.