Deep Throat Revealed: Historians' Comments


Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an Assistant Editor at HNN.

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This past week it was revealed that W. Mark Felt, the second in command at the F.B.I. during the Nixon Administrstion, admitted in a Vanity Fair magazine interview that he was "Deep Throat," the insider source who relayed top secret information about the Watergate coverup to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. HNN surveyed major media to see how historians reacted to the news. Text reprinted below was copied straight from news accounts.

Richard Norton Smith, Historian, former Director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

• "It's been replaced by a new Washington game, which is, what were Deep Throat's motives?"
• "He seems pretty conflicted over the years about what he did. In some ways, that's the most honorable thing about what he did: He didn't think he was a hero."

Gleaves Whitney, Director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University

• Whitney "noted some have speculated Deep Throat was a composite or a "literary device" Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein created as cover for a variety of sources."
• "It is odd that the second-most-important law enforcement officer in the United States would go to the media rather than to a prosecutor. I need more information before I pronounce him a hero or a villain."

Robert Dallek, Presidential Historian now working on a book about Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger

• "There was a powerful feeling of cynicism and skepticism about the government. There was a kind of pot that was brewing with all these unpleasant doubts and questions."
• "He was able to put them on the trail of the truth to find out just exactly what was going on in this scandal."
• "If this was a vendetta, then that would devalue what he did. But people never operate strictly out of one motive or another. He was clearly offended by the constitutional breaches that had occurred, but he was probably fueled by a certain amount of resentment at the politicization of the FBI."

Keith W. Olson, Professor of History, University of Maryland, author of "Watergate: the Scandal that Shook America"

• "Revelation of Deep Throat's identity generated massive media attention with further reflections still to come. Much of the interest stems from the fact that the mystery of his identity lasted more than thirty years. Mark Felt's acknowledgment that he was Deep Throat belongs in the context of the series of Watergate crises that included the Saturday Night Massacre, the 18 and 1/2 minute gap on one tape, the TIME magazine call for Nixon to resign, the publication of the transcripts of the tapes, the House Judiciary Committee passage of articles of impeachment, the Supreme Court ruling, the resignation, and the Ford pardon. In this broad context Deep Throat's identity would have had far less impact than it produced in 2005."
•"A second thought concerns Felt's motive, or more accurately motives, a subject that will continue to stimulate interest. Like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Felt wanted to maintain FBI autonomy. Gray's appointment and performance plus Hoover's opposition to the Nixon-sponsored Huston Plan the summer of 1970 are factors that provide a fuller context regarding Felt's motivations."

Joan Hoff, Professor of History Montana State University, Bozeman, an expert on the Watergate scandal

• Hoff believes the identification of Deep Throat is part of "an orchestrated publicity stunt on the part of the Post and Woodward" because Woodward plans to publish his own book on Felt. "Lo and behold," Felt's family decides he's Deep Throat and Felt can't say whether he is or not, and we get the big story."
• "It's conceivable that as the second in command at the FBI, the deputy director, he could have gotten information from somebody about this," she said. "But I don't think he gave them this information. I think it was somebody in the White House. At that point, the White House was so embattled over the tapes and the possible subpoena [of them], there were only 3 or 4 people who had access to those tapes."
• "He is the top law enforcement officer in the country because there's only an acting director [of the FBI] at that point. Why didn't he go to Sirica or a grand jury and blow the story open?"
• Hoff predicts that the story will rebound to the discredit of Woodward. It's another flashy story, she concedes, "but I think they made a mistake in choosing Felt."

Athan Theoharis, a Historian at Milwaukee's Marquette University who has written extensively on the FBI

• "Here you have the White House seeking information that would have political value to the White House from the FBI that had nothing to do with law enforcement. So there was a very legitimate reason for senior FBI officials to be concerned about the Nixon White House and the impact of its policies on the independence and integrity of the agency itself."
• The No. 2 man at the bureau was no doubt uncomfortable with his role, Prof. Theoharis said. But he said Mr. Felt had two motivations, "one principled and one bureaucratic." Mr. Felt saw first-hand how the Nixon White House was using the Central Intelligence Agency and its own appointee at the bureau to obstruct the investigation into its links to the Watergate burglars, Prof. Theoharis said.

W. Michael Weis, Illinois Wesleyan University History Professor

• "One thing that this does underscore for me is that there are always a lot of people close to an administration, but not actually in the administration, who probably know a lot more about what’s really going on than they’re willing to admit. But not many of them are willing to come forward and do what Deep Throat did."
• "While it was seen as a victory for open government and democracy at the time, I believe that Watergate taught the people who want to engage in these illegal activities how to be better at it. They learned from the mistakes that were made by those involved in Watergate. Consequently, when the Iran-Contra scandal breaks in the late 1980s, you have people spending days and days shredding and burning documents and cleaning out hard drives."
• "In the immediate aftermath of Watergate, we had a chance to curb the power of government and to enact reforms that would make it impossible to deceive the American people. And we didn’t do it."
• "If democracy is going to prevail, then citizens have to know what’s going on in the government; citizens have to understand why decisions are made and how they’re made. Today, we know less than ever before."

Joseph Coohill, Penn State New Kensington History Professor

• Coohill said that while the finding is important, people should remember that former FBI official W. Mark Felt was not the sole reason for President Nixon's resignation. He said media coverage of Felt's role in the Watergate scandal has been exaggerated.
• "It definitely solves an intriguing puzzle in American history. But to call him a hero is overstating it."
• "People using this opportunity to look back at Watergate should give equal, if not more, credit to Nixon's personal counsel John Dean and the reporters who pressured the investigation of White House activities, Coohill said."
• "There was a whole galaxy of things going on in bringing down (Nixon)."

David Kilroy, Wheeling Jesuit University Associate Professor of History

• But it was no surprise to Kilroy that "Deep Throat" worked at the FBI. He says he doubted it was anyone in the White House. Originally, "Deep Throat" was thought of as a traitor, but throughout the years, the perception of his role in history has changed, prompting his children to persuade him to come forward with his identity.
• Kilroy says the Watergate scandal and Deep Throat made a huge impact on the field of journalism, but also on our country as a whole. The incident also showed the importance of an independent media, and the consequences of not checking the power of the executive branch.

Don Ritchie, Senate Assistant Historian

• "Hallelujah!" Ritchie recalled saying yesterday.
• Ritchie's new book, "Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps," has just come out and on page 233, Ritchie makes it plain that he believed Felt was the storied source. "I was greatly relieved that my account of Deep Throat turned out to be right," he said.
• Ritchie sensed a divide among Capitol Hill staff members along age lines. "Those under 30 were puzzled by why anyone would care," he said, noting that those older than 30 all seemed to take great note of the story.

Sanford Ungar, President of Goucher College on PBS

• "That book was published 29 years ago and it's fascinating to look back now and see that Mark Felt, when I knew him for a period of time, spent several intense sessions with him talking to him, was a very opportunistic person who thought still he had a chance to become director of the FBI, and I think he may have done the right thing for the wrong motive or at least for partially the wrong motive at the time."
• "I did not know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. I was led off track by the fact that -- as I remember this -- that Deep Throat had to be a smoker. And Mark Felt did not smoke when I was with him."
• "And I found a hard time imagining him as a smoker because he was such a dapper, meticulous person, that I couldn't imagine him getting ash on his suit or being willing to smell like a cigarette. That was -- that's where I went wrong."