Last month, far from his old D.C. stomping grounds, a very old W. Mark Felt, Sr., died quietly in Santa Rosa, California. The press, who had known him as the dashing, silver-haired spook dubbed Deep Throat, portrayed this as a major event, the passing of one of the late 20th century’s most influential figures. The New York Times remembered him as the man who “helped bring down President Richard M. Nixon by resisting the Watergate cover-up and becoming Deep Throat, the most famous anonymous source in American history.” Across the Pond, the Guardian’s obituary only heightened the legend. “Long after memories of Linda Lovelace's pornographic film have vanished,” it wrote, “Felt will live on in American political history as Deep Throat, the mysterious insider whose leaks to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought well-deserved ruin to the Nixon presidency.”
In no small part because of Hal Holbrook’s goggle-eyed, cotton-mouthed portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, we’ve come to think of Deep Throat in these romantic terms: as the mystery man feeding rounds into Woodward and Bernstein’s gumshoe guns. That was in 1976. Nixon had resigned, the bad guys had gone to jail or had been publicly shamed, the movie won four Oscars, and still no one knew who Deep Throat was. So a large and devoted gaggle of politicians, journalists, and scholars began to guess at Deep Throat’s identity. Then they began to obsess over it, doubling back on every possible hypothesis, and Deep Throat’s legend ballooned. “A lot of awfully intelligent people made awful fools of themselves,” says Slate’s Timothy Noah, who, until Deep Throat’s outing, was an active participant in the guessing game. A bemused Woodward told me that, over the years, he’s received scores of PhD and masters dissertations trying to uncloak Deep Throat once and for all. It took three decades for Felt to come out and put an end to (most of) the speculation.
But this most anonymous of sources was not nearly as important to Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting--or to Nixon’s demise--as we have come to believe. He was useful, yes, but the Washington Post staffers who midwifed the Watergate story readily admit that he was just one of many, many sources, some of whom are still anonymous. In fact, the entire editorial team did not know about Deep Throat’s identity until after Nixon resigned. To them, Deep Throat was not the man who helped two reporters fell a crooked president, but just one piece of a huge and dynamic puzzle.
“Don’t think for a second that if Deep Throat was so important, Ben Bradlee wouldn’t have asked who he was,” Barry Sussman, Woodward and Bernstein’s direct editor on the Watergate articles, told me recently. (Today, Bradlee, the Post’s former executive editor, says he didn’t ask because Deep Throat was usually right. “Being right is what you care about in a source,” he explained. “If he was caught way off base telling a lie, then I would’ve asked. I would’ve throttled Woodward.”)
The Post had a two-source rule for the investigation--that is, every bit of information had to be corroborated--but Deep Throat was never one of them. He was rarely the one to approach Woodward; he didn’t offer documents or leads or even many details; he spoke in code and disappeared for long stretches of time. For the most part, he was a check on information Woodward and Bernstein had already cobbled together. “He was important, but the story could’ve been done without him,” says former metro editor (and Sussman’s boss) Harry Rosenfeld. “It wasn’t like any story stood or fell by what he told us.”
“I think his nickname elevated him into history more than his actual contribution,” Bradlee says. Thirty-odd years later, he is still baffled and delighted by the naughtiness of the moniker. “It’s extraordinary that it caught on. I mean, the average person had not seen the movie, I guess, and did not know that we were talking about oral intercourse here!”
On the two Woodward and Bernstein stories that made the biggest difference in the Watergate investigation, Deep Throat was of little help. The first was an August 1, 1972, piece about how Nixon reelection funds had been deposited to the account of one of the Watergate burglars. This was Woodward and Bernstein’s big break on Watergate, the first to link the burglary to the White House, and it launched an investigation by the GAO (which was largely ignored). The tip, however, had come not from Deep Throat, but a story in The New York Times. After reading the story, Bernstein flew down to Miami and plied the local investigator into showing him the burglar’s phone and bank records. The FBI had looked into this weeks earlier, but Deep Throat had kept mum.
The second was an October 10 article on Donald Segretti, a foot soldier in Nixon’s army of dirty tricksters. Before the story ran, Woodward met with Deep Throat to see if the story’s allegations were true. Deep Throat confirmed that the Post was right about Segretti, but hinted that there were more like him and that the rot reached wide and high, up to the very top of the administration. A pretty vague and useless hint for the reporters on deadline, but such were Deep Throat’s ways.
Even Felt, back when he was still denying that he was Deep Throat, told the Hartford Courant that, had he actually been Deep Throat, he would’ve “done it better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”
A good question. If Deep Throat didn’t bring the president down, what did he do?
Deep Throat, it turns out, was more of a vague guide than a fount of contraband information. “He didn’t just say, ‘Go into the office, open the third door on the left, and under the desk you’ll find something,’” says Bradlee. “But he pointed them in the right direction and gave guidance. He saved them all sorts of time and energy.” Deep Throat’s biggest impact was in the beginning of the beginning of the Watergate saga, before the machinery of an FBI investigation and Congressional inquiry took over the job of putting pressure on the White House. When news of the break-in first surfaced in June 1972, it was thought to have been a rogue operation and most news outlets quickly dropped the story. Woodward cajoled a very reluctant Mark Felt into hinting that the break-in was not an isolated incident, so Woodward and Bernstein, two relatively inexperienced city reporters, figured they should keep going. And so, as Nixon was actively trying to stuff the matter under the rug, the Post was able to keep the public spotlight trained on the administration long enough for Senator Sam Ervin to take notice and set up a Congressional inquiry. (The FBI had been investigating the break-in since the beginning, but the extent was largely unknown to the public.) “The information they got from Deep Throat gave Woodward and Bernstein the confidence and credibility to keep going and to create a climate that would allow for a Senate Watergate investigation and special prosecutor,” says Timothy Naftali, the director of the Nixon Presidential Library.
But Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was not what ultimately brought down Nixon; it was the famous “smoking gun” tape in which the president voiced his intent to snuff out the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in--and that didn’t come out until August 1974, after months of bruising hearings and a Supreme Court decision. On August 9 of that year, two years since the initial burglary, Nixon finally resigned--the result of all the little hatchets of the government’s investigative and judicial agencies slowly chipping away at the hydra’s many necks. And Deep Throat had little to do with that.
“I think that the press minimized the role of the government and the power of subpoenas and the threat of prison and all the things the Justice Department can do to people to say, ‘Unless you testify, you’re going to wind up in prison,’” says Edward Jay Epstein, a writer who was one of the first to investigate the role of the press in exposing Watergate.
Woodward, too, admits that Deep Throat’s role in taking down Nixon has been exaggerated, but he doesn’t think it was negligible. “The accurate answer is, we played a role in a certain period, very early on, in finding out what happened,” Woodward says in his soft, serious voice. On the line from his Post office where he is most days of the week, he is frustrated that his source, protected by the sacrosanct code of confidentiality, became the subject of a glib parlor game. “Deep Throat was invaluable, but, you know, he wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg coming in with a grocery cart full of documents and Pentagon Papers.”
Julia Ioffe is a writer living in New York.
By Julia Ioffe