Maybe Now the Watergate Conspiracy Theories Will Finally Go Away


Mr. Greenberg is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image (2003). He teaches history at Rutgers University.

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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.

When engaged in carefully and with the right sense of fun, this speculation was an innocent diversion. Tim Noah's columns inSlate, 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.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.

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Maarja Krusten - 6/3/2005

In describing ethical quandaries for archivists, I do not mean whether or not to reveal unreleased historical information. As many former archivists do, I believe that if something is not yet public in historical records, then you don't talk about the substance of that unreleased historical information. The problem I'm decribing is different. What do you do about ethical quandaries that surround the process of trying to release the information? What do you do in the face of external political pressure? Do what you're told? Fight back? Go up the chain of command, as some people have suggested Mark Felt should have done? If that isn't feasible, what then?

See what John Taylor, director of the now still privately run Nixon foundation and library, wrote of our efforts to release Watergate information:

"The explosive release of the last Watergate tapes, with its grossly distorted coverage, was the high-water mark, the Pickett's Charge, in a campaign to lay on Nixon all the iniquities of a troubled era. The scandal-only complexion of the release was a product of the time bomb planted by the Democratic Watergate Congress Of 1975-76, which directed the National Archives to release all tapes about Watergate before anything else. This requirement turned archivists into junior prosecutors, listening to the tapes over and over for conversations that seemed to fit the bill. Until six years ago an informal understanding existed between President Nixon and NARA that the "abuse of power" tapes would be defined as the 63 hours used by the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973-74. But then we were told that the Hardy Boys at NARA had kept a little list-201 additional fun-filled hours of their own greatest hits."

This is the library to which Nixon's records are about to be transferred.

Stanley Kutler gives his take on the struggle to release Watergate information in his article, "Ligeration of the Nixon Tapes," May 6, 1996, Legal Times. He was critical of the National Archives leadership, noting,

"What is harder to understand is that the National Archives proved to be Nixon's willing and trusted ally -- even though it meant defying the law and misleading the public as to the nature of the material." Kutler gave his view of two NARA officials for whom I once worked, "Denying even that more Watergate tapes existed, they put themselves in the service of Nixon, not the nation or the scholarly community as they were obligated to do."

Posted on lunch break during personal time

Maarja Krusten - 6/3/2005

query I posted to Cliopatra blog at

Maarja Krusten - 6/3/2005

I waited several days to see whether anyone posting or blogging on HNN would draw a parallel between the choices facing a federal official who lived through historic but troubling times, such as Felt, and the ethical struggles of the archivists who hold the records of those times. Needless to say, no one did. People spent their professional capital on other issues. You can, however, see the split in Nixon scholarship, something I've mentioned in the past, demonstrated in the articles by Dr. Greenberg and Dr. Hoff.

I myself never comment much on Nixon himself--having listened to the unreleased as well as the released Nixon tapes as a former NARA employee, I never could prove that any detailed account I gave of Nixon derived solely from what was released to the public, rather than knowledge based on restricted information. So, I steer clear of such matters. I do comment on archival issues. The Washington Post had several online reader forums in the last few days. Here's the question I sent in, which, not surprisingly, was not chosen for response.

Here's the question I sent in:

"I'm not surprised that the revelation of Deep Throat's identify has triggered debate in forums and blogs about officials who turn to the press with their concerns about governmental actions. Curiously, the press displays little interest in what later happens to the records that capture such history. For the most part, newspapers simply re-write press releases about archival matters and never dig deeper. An example: The New York Times reported reassuringly on June 5, 1991 about the National Archives' release of Watergate tapes that “Mr. Nixon did not contest the release of the latest transcripts, [the Archives’ spokeswoman said]. Mr. Nixon's lawyer has previously said his client would not contest the release of transcripts relating to the Watergate affair.” Only when Stanley Kutler, an historian, filed a public access lawsuit in 1992 did testimony by working level archivists reveal that the National Archives HAD received requests from Nixon to cut those tapes.

Having been an archivist once, I know they struggle with ethical quandaries about the records in their care. But, as federal employees, they only have the Department of Justice to protect them and their records. DOJ often balances public access issues differently than archivists would. What does that mean for the truth buried in the records? Archivists strive for integrity, they don't want to be "Deep Throat," they want to uphold the law, but often struggle -- alone -- to do the right thing. They are alone because the press isn't interested in their quandaries, newspapers such as the Post seem to find archival issues boring. So, what advice would you give archivists who are trying to release historical records about issues such as Watergate, matters that powerful figures might want to have suppressed? Who, if anyone, are their allies?"