The death of W. Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, added a postscript on Friday to an era of political skulduggery and journalistic endeavor that brought down a presidency.
Felt, who was 95 when he died at home in California, had been second-in-command at the FBI during former US president Richard Nixon’s term. Three years ago he unmasked himself as the most famous anonymous source in the history of journalism, the mysterious official who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break the Watergate story in 1972.
He almost took the secret to the grave and by the time he told a family friend and lawyer: “I’m the guy they used to call Deep Throat” more than three decades later, he was beginning to lose his memory.
When the news broke in a Vanity Fair magazine article in 2005 and journalists began to gather at his door, Felt was fading away, and did little more than smile and wave. His “autobiography” was published in 2006, entitled A G-Man’s life: The FBI, Deep Throat and the Struggle for Honour in Washington, but it was clear he had contributed little to it beyond an earlier memoir written in 1979.
“People will debate for a long time whether I did the right thing by helping Woodward. The bottom line is that we did get the whole truth out, and isn’t that what the FBI is supposed to do?” Felt is quoted as saying in the book, a quote probably drawn from agonized conversations with his children and the family lawyer, John O’Connor, in the last few months before his identity was confirmed.
The Nixon White House had suspected him from the beginning. In a taped Oval Office conversation Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, tells him that Felt was behind the leaks that were sinking his presidency.
“Is he a Catholic?” Nixon asks, and Haldeman replies, wrongly, that Felt was Jewish.
“It could be the Jewish thing,” Nixon says, rambling. “I don’t know. It’s always a possibility.”
When Felt joined the FBI in 1942 to hunt German spies, he presumably never expected to be remembered as a shadowy figure in a car park, and named after a porn film. It would almost certainly never have happened — and Nixon would probably be remembered now as a grouchy statesman who pulled out of Vietnam and famously went to China — if Felt had not happened to bump into a navy courier in a White House corridor in 1970.
By then, Felt was a top official in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The navy lieutenant was Woodward, delivering messages for the Pentagon. They struck up a conversation, and then friendship. Felt was protective, and Woodward was ambitious and on the lookout for a mentor. Two years later when he was a cub reporter on the Washington Post and asked to look into a seemingly insignificant burglary at the Democratic party headquarters in the Watergate hotel and apartment complex, Woodward knocked on Felt’s door.
It was then that Felt made a critical decision. Hoover had recently died but Felt had been passed over for the top job. It had gone to a Nixon loyalist, L. Patrick Gray, who was soft-pedaling the investigation into the Watergate break-in and the other dirty tricks by Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (known as Creep). Felt decided to help Woodward and Bernstein follow the story.
Felt was meticulous about covering his trail, and the arrangement he struck with Woodward has since passed into journalistic folklore. When Woodward wanted to talk to Felt he would move a plant pot with a little red flag in it to a different spot on his balcony.