Deep Throat conspiracy theories still won't die.

The history behind current events.
June 1 2005 7:42 PM

Throat Clearing

Watergate conspiracy theories that still won't die.

Will Felt's outing end the conspiracy theories?
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Will Felt's outing end the conspiracy theories?

As the historian Stanley I. Kutler noted in Slate a few years ago, Deep Throat's significance has surely been inflated by journalists, who have been entranced by a story that matters more to them than to history. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had scores of sources for their Watergate reporting, and while Deep Throat—or, as we should now say, W. Mark Felt, the former deputy associate director of the FBI —was an important one, he did not single-handedly expose Richard Nixon's "White House horrors."

Deep Throat's mythic role in the public imagination, however, remains strong. Because of the impact of their reporting and of the popularity of All the President's Men (both the book and the movie), Woodward and Bernstein became celebrities and journalistic legends—and Deep Throat's identity became the focus of endless conjecture.

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When engaged in carefully and with the right sense of fun, this speculation was an innocent diversion. Tim Noah's columns in Slate, Bill Gaines' journalism class projects, and books by John Dean and Leonard Garment provided entertaining fodder for political junkies bewitched by an enduring mystery. But often the speculation had harmful consequences—at times turning what should have been a serious examination of an important chapter in history into a greenhouse for outlandish theories falsely implying that "true" history is always far different from what we're taught. By finally coming out as Deep Throat, Felt should put this nonsense to rest—although there's reason to fear he won't.

One recurring slur against Woodward, Bernstein, and the Washington Post was that Deep Throat was a fabrication. Most of the people who made such claims knew little about Woodward and Bernstein's reporting, and some were old Nixon loyalists. But the theory gained new currency in 1998 when Woodward and Bernstein's former agent, David Obst, wrote in his memoir Too Good to Be Forgotten that Deep Throat didn't appear in the first draft of the book All the President's Men. Obst concluded that the reporters therefore invented him for dramatic purposes.

What Obst doesn't make clear (or perhaps has forgotten) is that All the President's Men was initially a very different book. Woodward and Bernstein first wrote it as a conventional political narrative, a straightforward account of Watergate. Even the reporters themselves weren't central characters, as they would become in later versions. If subscribers to Obst's theory examined the Woodward and Bernstein Watergate papers at the University of Texas—such as this early outline of the book or this page from an early draft—this fact would become obvious to them. Besides, other Washington Post editors were familiar with Deep Throat—and had even tagged him with his pornographic moniker—long before the book All the President's Men was in the works.

A related theory bruited about at cocktail parties—again, usually by people in no position to know—was that Deep Throat was a composite of several people. This notion was especially bizarre, since there's no tradition of using composite sources in serious journalism and no evidence was ever produced to support it. Woodward and Bernstein have denied the "composite" theory consistently and unequivocally. Nonetheless, it has refused to die.

A third line of misbegotten conjecture centered on the claim that Deep Throat was a Pentagon official or a military hawk who wanted to drive Nixon from power because he opposed Nixon's policies of détente with the Soviet Union and rapprochement with China. Frequently these scenarios featured as Deep Throat Gen. Alexander Haig, who served as Henry Kissinger's aide at the National Security Council and was promoted to White House chief of staff when H.R. Haldeman resigned in April 1973 amid damning Watergate revelations.

This theory received a boost from the book Silent Coup, which enjoys little support from serious historians and has largely faded into oblivion but was a best-seller in 1991. Silent Coup took great pains to "prove" that Woodward and Haig knew each other when Woodward was a young man in the Navy and extrapolated that Haig was probably the eminent source. And although Woodward and Haig both said that they didn't know each other until after Nixon resigned, their perfectly credible statements cut no ice with those determined to believe their own preconceived theories.

All of these underground Deep Throat scenarios can be dismissed by historians, but they have had corrosive effects. First, they have unfairly impugned the reputations of not only Woodward (for whom, incidentally, I worked more than a decade ago) and others at the Post, but also Haig and other alleged Deep Throats whose imagined roles were typically described in unflattering terms. Many of the conspiracy theories argued that Deep Throat (whoever he was) was self-servingly and perhaps illegitimately trying to "bring down" Nixon—a claim some Nixon loyalists are now making about Felt.

Spurious Deep Throat theories also promote false impressions about how journalism works. They suggest that reporters are just the pawns of powerful sources who use leaks to work their will. But reporters don't simply funnel a source's claims into print or onto the air. They have many sources, who operate from multiple motives, and they consider their sources' motives as they do their reporting. The wild Deep Throat speculation encourages people to see journalism as something like prospecting for oil—drilling in one place after another until you hit a gusher—rather than the more painstaking, gradual process that it typically is.

Finally, the reckless Deep Throat guesswork plays havoc with history. The premise of the fabrication and composite and silent coup theories is that accepted history is counterfeit, that the truth about the past can be ferreted out not by studying official records, but by seeking out what remains hidden—which, in conspiracist thinking, is always hidden deliberately. (They are Marxist historians, it might be said—devotees not of Karl but of Chico, who once said, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?")

In my book Nixon's Shadow, I labeled the more outré researchers of this sort "Watergate deniers," just as Holocaust revisionists are now more properly termed Holocaust deniers. Although the severity of Watergate obviously pales next to the horror of the Holocaust, and the campaigns to gainsay the two events are quite different, the two groups share certain habits of mind. Both hold that history—or, as they would have it, "official" history—is a lie. Both use one or two unsolved riddles or mistakes to write off the existence of actual events and established truths. Both erect their cases on rickety logic and meager evidence, yet lobby with sufficient ardor to gain themselves a hearing.

Now that we know for certain that Mark Felt was Deep Throat, it would be nice if such insidious speculation could be retired. But, alas, a conspiracy is by its nature impossible to disprove, and as I write, the signs are appearing that this news has only reignited it. It's a sad irony. Watergate, after all, was that rare historical drama in which skeptics, paranoids, and amateur sleuths didn't need to twist the facts in order to find a conspiracy. The secret plot was being hatched in the Oval Office itself.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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