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Throat Culture

Throat Culture
July 7, 2005

For the past few days, I've been waiting for a review copy of Bob Woodward's book The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat to arrive from Simon and Schuster. So there has been some time to contemplate the way that (no longer quite so) mysterious figure has been "inscribed" ina "double register" of "the historical imaginary," as the cult-stud lingo has it. (Sure hope there's a chance to use "imbricated discourse" soon. Man, that would be sweet.)

Putting it in slightly more commonplace terms: Two versions of Deep Throat have taken shape in the past 30 years or so. They correspond to two different ways of experiencing the odd, complex relationship between media and historical memory.

On the one hand, there was Deep Throat as a participant in a real historical event -- making the question of his motivation an important factor in making sense of what happened. It was even, perhaps, the key to understanding the "deep politics" of Watergate, the hidden forces behind Richard Nixon's fall. The element of lasting secrecy made it all kind of blurry, but in a fascinating way, like some especially suggestive Rorschach blot.

On the other hand, there was Deep Throat as pure icon -- a reference you could recognize (sort of) even without possessing any clear sense of his role in Watergate. It started out with Hal Holbrook's performance in All the President's Men -- which, in turn, was echoed by "the cigarette-smoking man" on "The X Files," as well as the mysterious source of insider information about the Springfield Republican Party on "The Simpsons." And so Deep Throat (whose pseudonym was itself originally amovie title) becomes a mediatic signifier unmoored to any historical signified. (An allusion to an allusion to a secret thus forgotten.)

Different as they might be, these two versions of Deep Throat aren't mutually exclusive. The discourses can indeed become imbricated ( yes!), as in the memorable film Dick, which reveals Deep Throat as a pair of idealistic schoolgirls who guide the cluelessly bumbling Woodward and Bernstein through the mysteries of the Nixon White House.

There is something wonderful about this silly premise: In rewriting the history of Watergate, Dick follows the actual events, yet somehow neutralizes their dire logic by just the slightest shift ofemphasis. The deepest secret of an agonizing national crisis turns out to be something absurd.

That perspective is either comically subversive or deeply cynical. Either way, it's been less anticlimactic, somehow, than the revelation of Deep Throat's real identity as the former FBI official Mark Felt. So much for the more elaborate theories about Watergate - that it was, for example, a "silent coup" by a hard-right anticommunist faction of the U.S. military, upset by the administration's dealings with the Soviets and the Chinese. And Deep Throat's role as emblem of noir-ish intrigue may never recover from the impact of the recent, brightly lit video footage of Mark Felt -- half-dazed, half mugging for the camera.

And there have been other disappointments. This week, I had an interesting exchange by e-mail with Bill Gaines, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and two-time winner of the Pulitzer, not counting his two other times as finalist. His part in the DeepThroat saga came late in the story, and it's caused him a certain amount of grief.

But it was also -- this seems to me obvious -- quite honorable. If anything, it is even more worthy of note now that Bob Woodward is telling his side of the story. (While Carl Bernstein also has a chapter in the book, it was Woodward who had the connection with Felt.)

In 1999, Gaines and his students began an investigation designed to determine the identity of Deep Throat. The project lasted four years. It involved sifting through thousands of pages of primary documents and reading acres of Watergate memoir and analysis -- as well as comparing the original articles by Woodward and Bernstein from The Washington Post to the narrative they provided in their book All the President's Men. Gaines also tracked down earlier versions of the manuscript for that volume -- drafted before Woodward decided to reveal that he had a privileged source of inside information.

Gaines and his students compiled a database they used to determine which of the likely candidates would have actually been in a position to leak the information that Deep Throat provided. In April 2003, they held a press conference at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC, where they revealed ... the wrong guy.

After a period of thinking that Deep Throat must have been Patrick Buchanan (once a speechwriter for Nixon), the researchers concluded that it had actually been Fred Fielding, an attorney who had worked as assistant to John Dean. The original report from the project making the case for Fielding is still available online -- now updated with a text from Gaines saying, "We were wrong."

The aftermath of Felt's revelation, in late May, was predictably unpleasant for Gaines. There were hundreds of e-mail messages, and his phone rang off the hook. "Some snickered as if we had run the wrong way with the football," he told me.

But he added, "My students were extremely loyal and have told anyone who will listen that they were thrilled with being a part of this project even though it failed." Some of those who worked on the project came around to help Gaines with the deluge of correspondence, and otherwise lend moral support.

As mistaken deductions go, the argument offered by Gaines and his students two years ago is pretty rigorous. Its one major error seems to have come at an early stage, with the assumption that Woodward's account of Deep Throat was as exact as discretion would allow. That was in keeping with Woodward's own statements, over the years. "It's okay to leave things out to protect the identity of a source," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, "but to add something affirmative that isn't true is to publish something you know to be an inaccuracy. I don't believe that's ethical for a reporter."

The problem is that the original account of Deep Throat doesn't line up quite perfectly with what is known about Mark Felt. Some of the discrepancies are small, but puzzling even so. Deep Throat is a chain smoker, while Felt claimed to have given up the demon weed in 1943. "The idea that Felt only smokes in the garage [during his secretive rendezvous with Woodward] is a little hard to swallow," says Gaines. "I cannot picture him buying a pack and throwing the rest away for the drama it will provide." By contrast, Fielding was a smoker.

More substantive, perhaps, are questions about what Deep Throat knew and how he knew it. Gaines and his students noted that statements attributed to Deep Throat in All the President's Men were credited to a White House source in the original newspaper articles by Woodward and Bernstein. (Felt was second in command at the FBI, not someone working directly for the White House, as was Fielding.)

Deep Throat provided authoritative information gleaned from listening to Nixon's secret recordings during a meeting in November 1973. That was several months after Felt left the FBI. And to complicate things still more, no one from the FBI had been at the meeting where the recordings were played.

According to Gaines, that means Felt could only have learned about the contents of the recordings at third hand, at best. Felt was, as Gaines put it in an e-mail note, ""so far removed that his comments to Woodward would have to be considered hearsay, and not the kind of thing a reporter could write for fact by quoting an anonymous source."

When I ask Gaines if there is anything he hopes to learn from Bob Woodward's new book, he mentions hoping for some insight into one of the more memorable descriptions of the secret source -- the one about how Deep Throat "knew too much literature too well." In any case, Gaines make a strong argument that Woodward himself took a certain amount of literary license in transforming Felt into Deep Throat.

"We know from our copy of an earlier manuscript that Woodward changed some direct quotes attributed to Throat," he notes. "They were not major changes, but enough to tell us that he was loose with the quotes. There is information attributed to Throat that Felt would not have had, or that doesnot agree with what we found in FBI files."

As the saying has it, journalists write a first draft of history. One of the ethical questions involves trying to figure out just how much discretion they get in polishing the manuscript. Gaines seems careful not to say anything too forceful on this score -- though he does make clear that he isn't charging Woodward with creating a composite character.

That has long been one of the suspicions about Deep Throat. Even the new revelation hasn't quite dispelled it. Just after Felt went public with his announcement, Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, reviewed some of the grounds for thinking that "several people who provided key information ... were turned into a composite figure for dramatic purposes" by Woodward and Bernstein. (You can find more of Wiener's comments here, at the very end of the article.)

For his part, Gaines says that the Deep Throat investigation isn't quite closed -- although he wishes it were. "I have always wanted to move on to something more important for the class project," he told me, "but the students and the media have caused us to keep going back to the Throat story."

Maybe now they should look into the mystery surrounding Deep Throat's most famous line: his memorable injunction to Woodward, "Follow the money."

It appears in the movie version of All the President's Men, though it can't be found in the book. When asked about it in an interview some years ago, Woodward guessed that it was an embellishment by William Goldman, the screenwriter. But Goldman has insisted that he got the line from Woodward.

Now it's part of the national mythology. But it may never have actually happened. Sometimes I wish the discourses would stop imbricating long enough to get this kind of thing sorted out.

 

 

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