Inside player, unlikely `Deep Throat'

Political operative left Nixon White House years before Watergate

July 26, 2000|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It's too bad that both John Sears and Bob Woodward say emphatically that Sears is not the Watergate mystery man, as former Nixon White House counsel Leonard Garment says he is in his new book, "In Search of Deep Throat: The Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time." He'd have made a good one.

John Patrick Sears, now 60, in real life would be perfectly type-cast for the role: a politically astute inside player who during the early Nixon years kept a very low profile but was up to his ears in the political machinations of the time. The trouble is, he was unceremoniously kicked out of the Nixon White House in 1969, after only a few months there, and nearly three years before the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex that was Richard Nixon's undoing.

Sears, in a telephone interview yesterday, said of Garment's conclusion: "This is nonsense and he knows it. I talked to people in the White House from time to time, but none of the major players. They hated my guts." John Mitchell, Nixon's 1968 campaign manager and first attorney general, engineered his removal before the administration's first summer was out.

Woodward, the Washington Post super-sleuth, introduced "Deep Throat" to the nation as his secret source in "All the President's Men," his best-selling book with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein. In another telephone interview, Woodward called Garment's contention "ridiculous." Sears, he said, "doesn't fit the description" of Deep Throat, the name given to the anonymous source Woodward said provided him guidance on White House shenanigans in clandestine meetings in the months after the Watergate break-in.

Sears' name thus can be added to the long list of Deep Throat suspects who have joined Woodward in denying the role. They include these Nixon associates: former White House chief of staff Alexander Haig, former CIA Director William Casey, former FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, former Assistant Attorney General Henry Petersen, and former White House aides Fred Fielding and David Gergen.

Woodward and Bernstein have said often in the 28 years since the break-in that a promise was made to the real Deep Throat (the name taken from a pornographic movie of the time) not to reveal his identity until after his death. Skeptics have pointed out that this condition gives the two reporters the comfort of not having to deal with yet another denial since, as the expression goes, dead men tell no tales. Nor disavow them, either.

Woodward likes to call the periodic release of portions of the Nixon tapes "the gift that keeps on giving," because they can be counted on to provide additional Nixon stories. In the same way, the Deep Throat mystery is also a gift that keeps on giving, as seen in the continuing fascination - among political junkies anyway - over who the secret source was, and the latest mini-focus on the man Leonard Garment says fills the bill.

John Sears, retired now after a noteworthy career in politics and the practice of international law, takes it all in stride. From his earliest days with Nixon, he has always held his cards close to his vest - a practice that often infuriated political operatives even in the same campaign with him, but made him a master of the surprise tactic.

Although he was a longtime Nixon aide, he made his biggest splash in presidential politics in running the Ronald Reagan campaigns of 1976 and, until he was booted out in a power struggle with Reagan loyalists, of 1980. In 1976, bringing candidate Reagan into the Republican National Convention in Kansas City behind President Gerald R. Ford in delegates, Sears kept the Reagan candidacy alive for a time with clever procedural moves, but they failed.

In 1980, it was Sears who intentionally engineered a fiasco during the New Hampshire primary when Reagan sponsored a supposed two-man debate with the elder George Bush, whereupon Sears invited all the other GOP candidates. Bush sat petulantly when the others showed up and refused to let them participate. Reagan, who welcomed the intruders, came off as the hero and went on to win the primary.

Sears, from Syracuse, actually got his start in presidential politics not as Nixon's man but as a campaign manager for John F. Kennedy on the campus of Notre Dame. Although he was a Republican at the time, Sears co-chaired the Kennedy campaign that won at a mock Democratic convention.

After Georgetown Law School, Sears joined Nixon's law firm in New York and, along with a young editorial writer named Patrick J. Buchanan, began to handle political chores for the firm's prime rainmaker. In 1967, he was Nixon's delegate hunter, a job that educated him in the primary election and convention processes and introduced him to key political figures around the country.

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