The Watergate scandal was a formative episode in American political culture that powerfully reinforced public skepticism towards government and fostered a heroic image of the intrepid reporter aided by his truth-telling source. But the reality, as usual, is more complicated than the received narrative. In a fascinating new book, “Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat,” Max Holland probes deep into the record of Watergate to illuminate some of those complications.
The question that Holland sets out to answer is the nature of “Deep Throat’s” agenda. What drove FBI official Mark Felt to disclose sensitive investigative information about the Watergate burglary and the ensuing coverup to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post? What were his motivations and what was he hoping to accomplish?
Holland pays close attention to what Felt told Woodward (and when), what Felt could have told Woodward but did not, and what he told Woodward that was not actually true.
His conclusion, spelled out at the beginning of the book, is that Felt’s actions are best understood in the context of the struggle over who would succeed J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI. Felt hoped it would be him.
“More than any other single factor, the desperate, no-holds-barred war of succession explains why Mark Felt did what he did, and to a considerable extent, why the scandal played out in the media as it did,” Holland writes. “The contest to succeed Hoover was perceived as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and it brought out the worst in the Bureau and Mark Felt.”
“The portrait of Felt that emerges when we follow this thread does not resemble any of Bob Woodward’s depictions,” in Holland’s judgment. “Felt held the news media in contempt and was neither a high-minded whistle-blower, nor was he genuinely concerned about defending his institution’s integrity.”
“Woodward believed that he and Felt were on the same side, allies in the struggle to expose the facts and larger truth. For Felt, however, their relationship was simply a means to the end of becoming FBI director. If that end was best served by salting the information he gave Woodward with details that had only a casual relationship with the facts, so be it.”
Strictly speaking, Felt’s motives in leaking information are of secondary importance, if not quite irrelevant. Holland cites an observation by Timothy Noah that “If the free flow of vital information about our government depended on the purity of heart of all concerned, we would know very little. Happily, we are as likely to learn what we need to know through the pursuit of cheap advantage.”
Still, Holland says, “a recognition that Felt was seeking personal advancement first and foremost would have led to heightened scrutiny of his claims and a better version of the obtainable truth.”
More broadly, a reader of the book will be reminded to question the motives of sources, especially anonymous sources. Further, one may conclude that the mantle of “whistleblower” is not one to be lightly claimed or bestowed. (Some may feel that publishing collections of stolen email, for example, does not qualify.)
“Leak” is a work of impressive scholarship, yet it is vividly told and quite engrossing. Reading it on the subway, I missed my stop. The book benefits from the intrinsic drama of Watergate, and from the enduring impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s book (and Redford’s movie) “All the President’s Men.” For better or worse, the story is one that transcends its time.