The Most Washington Movie Ever—and the Search for Deep Throat

By Jack Limpert

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Mark Felt was the secret source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting.

After a month of voting, readers of The Washingtonian decided that of all the films ever set in Washington, All the President’s Men—Alan Pakula’s 1976 adaptation of the Washington Post’s reporting on the 1972 break-in at the Watergate—is the “most Washington” of them all. The Washingtonian says the movie deserves the honor: Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman gave memorable performances as Washington Post  reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Jason Robards won an Oscar for his portrayal of Post editor Ben Bradlee. And then there was the wonderfully mysterious character Deep Throat, who Woodward said met him in an underground parking garage and helped guide his Watergate reporting.

Back in the early 1970s I was the fairly new editor of The Washingtonian and one of my mentors was Frank Waldrop, editor of the Washington Times-Herald until it was bought and closed by the Washington Post. Frank wrote occasionally for the magazine and I talked often with him, getting advice on how to be an editor. His best advice: “You’re a small town boy from Wisconsin. Keep your sense of astonishment at what you see in Washington.”

In the summer of 1974, after President Richard Nixon resigned and the Woodward and Bernstein book, All the President’s Men, came out,  Frank told me that the Deep Throat character may have been Mark Felt, a top official at the FBI. Frank had good FBI connections, and I wrote two pieces that summer speculating that Felt was Deep Throat. Here’s the first one, published in June 1974; it has a link to the second one published two months later.

More than 30 years later, in 2005, Mark Felt confessed. In a Vanity Fair article, John D. O’Connor, an attorney acting on Felt’s behalf, quoted Felt as saying, “I’m the guy they used to call Deep Throat.” Woodward and Bernstein confirmed it. Three years later, Felt, the former associate director of the FBI, died.
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Why did Mark Felt help Woodward and Bernstein? Here’s an excerpt from the book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland. The book, published by the University Press of Kansas, is described this way by the publisher: “LEAK is the true story of the most famous confidential source in journalism history—Deep Throat, aka W. Mark Felt, a former No. 2 executive at the FBI. The book exposes why Felt chose to leak information about the Watergate break-in to a cub reporter on the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, and a senior reporter for Time, Sandy Smith. Felt’s behavior had nothing to do with law or principle, but everything to do with the unseemly ‘war of the FBI succession’ that was taking place simultaneously.”

A section of Holland’s book about the search for Deep Throat:

While lots of books would be written about Watergate, none would prove quite as enduring as All the President’s Men. A key element in keeping it at the forefront of public consciousness was that Bernstein and Woodward had also created an engrossing and ongoing mystery, almost inadvertently. Two months prior to the book’s publication, and before excerpts of it appeared in Playboy (which paid $30,000, or $125,000 in 2011 dollars, for the right to publish two installments), the Associated Press carried a long story on the revelations in All the President’s Men. The disclosure of clandestine meetings between Woodward and “a member of the executive branch . . . dubbed Deep Throat” took up a third of the article, for he supposedly epitomized “the very notion of the confidential source.” The Post reporters professed genuine surprise at all the attention being lavished on Deep Throat. “When we wrote the book, we didn’t think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions,” Bernstein later observed.

Despite the authors’ best efforts at misdirection, details in All the President’s Men, together with snippets from Nixon’s tape recordings released in April 1974 as part of the impeachment process, immediately made Mark Felt the prime suspect. The Washingtonian magazine was the first to write about the capital’s new favorite parlor game. Relying on the insights of Frank Waldrop, a long-time newspaper editor who was a razor-sharp observer of the Washington scene, and “absolutely wired [in] to the FBI,” the magazine singled out Felt as the most plausible suspect the same month the book was published.

The best gossip in town these days is the Deep Throat guessing game. . . . Like a good detective, let’s ignore all of Woodward and Bernstein’s red herrings and look at motive and opportunity and method. . . . Who had access to all the material? Who had the resources to set up a system to leak it?

The FBI, that’s who. Read the February 28 and March 13 presidential transcripts and then try someone like Mark Felt on for size. A Hoover loyalist and number-two man to Pat Gray, he had every reason and resource for leaking the Watergate story and destroying Nixon. Why would someone like Felt pick Woodward and Bernstein? Why not? Why pick someone like Jeremiah O’Leary of the [Washington] Star who has been getting FBI leaks for years? Why not pick the last two reporters who would ever be suspected of being FBI conduits?

The only real flaw with this line of thinking (which would also color all future efforts to discern Deep Throat’s identity) was its presumption that the end result—the dismantling of the Nixon administration—had been intended from the start.

In public, Felt responded to this article and others with an air of nonchalance. He even affected bemusement, although friends who kept giving him “knowing winks” were annoying. He told Jack Limpert, the writer of The Washingtonian article, “I can tell you that it was not I and it is not I.” To a Wall Street Journal reporter he said, “I don’t disagree with the reasoning, but I do disagree with the conclusion. Because I’m just not that kind of person.” If someone had managed to recall Laurence Stern’s article from June 1973, it is difficult to believe that Felt’s denials would have ever carried much weight, however.

When Limpert wrote a follow-up article conveying Felt’s denial, he also tried to dig up more information that would either exculpate the former FBI executive or definitively finger him. A “former Justice Department official” provided “very solid supporting” information, Limpert wrote.

What about [Felt’s] motive? In the June issue, we speculated that the old Hoover people at the FBI might have wanted to leak Watergate material to hurt FBI Director Gray and President Nixon, who were bent on tearing down the Hoover organization. Asked about this, a former top Justice Department official said: “Maybe it was revenge. But I think it was ambition, too. I can see Mark Felt as Deep Throat. He had all the information, and he badly wanted to be the director. He had enough contact with the press that he might have tried to use his Watergate information to hurt Gray and to curry favor with an important newspaper like the Post. In fact, you ought to look into why Felt left the FBI so quietly in June of 1973. Leaks may have had something to do with it.

Comments

  1. Tim Hays says

    He kept his denials consistent to the end, even when tempted by the fortune a book advance could bring him. There is a certain admirable quality to that.

  2. A DC lawyer tells me he was reading the Max Holland book on the train, going from New York to DC, saw Woodward in the car, and asked him about the Washingtonian stories in 1974 that almost nailed Mark Felt as Deep Throat. “Yes,” Woodward said, “we were a little nervous about that.”

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