'Secret Man' resonates now, amid case of jailed journalist

July 17, 2005|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN BOOK EDITOR

JOURNALISM

THE SECRET MAN: THE STORY OF WATERGATE'S DEEP THROAT

By Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster, 249 pages.

First off, The Secret Man, Bob Woodward's account of his dealing with Deep Throat, his legendary secret source, only adds incrementally to the vast body of knowledge already known about Watergate (thanks immeasurably to Woodward's own reporting in The Washington Post and his previous books). But as a portrait of the taut, complicated relationship between a reporter and confidential source who, overcoming his own conflicted motivations, puts everything at risk to disclose what he knows, it is a provocative, even stirring contribution.

The coincidence is inescapable that The Secret Man would be published the very week that a judge sent another reporter, The New York Times' Judith Miller, to jail for refusing to reveal a source. Woodward makes no mention of that current case in his book, but, of course, the example of Deep Throat speaks most eloquently of all to the principle at stake in reporters' being able to protect confidential sources. Without anonymity, Deep Throat would never have cooperated with Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and if he had not, who knows when or even if the full enormity of Watergate would have come to light.

By now, everyone knows that Deep Throat, the source who helped propel the groundbreaking Watergate reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, was W. Mark Felt, then the No. 2 man at the FBI. And everyone also knows that the reason we finally know is not because Woodward finally told us. Vanity Fair scooped Woodward on his own story a few weeks ago, revealing his long-held secret in an article written by a lawyer in concert with the Felt family.

That is the uncharitable view, though. The fact that Vanity Fair broke the story rather than Wood-ward is evidence not of a reporter's lapse, but of his integrity. As Woodward relates in The Secret Man (rushed into publication after Vanity Fair's disclosure), even as Felt's family explored with Wood-ward the possibility of disclosing the secret in the last few years, Woodward would not budge.

Felt is now 91 and clearly impaired with dementia (he didn't seem to remember Nixon's resignation when Woodward last saw him in 2000, let alone the reasons for it or the role he had played). Woodward concluded that Felt was not competent to alter the agreement they had reached all those years ago. After much debating with himself, Woodward decided to maintain his silence about Felt, even though it meant seeing Deep Throat's identity revealed in another publication.

But The Secret Man is not an exercise in self-flattery, as Woodward himself acknowledges. "The portrait of me is not all that admirable," he notes. He portrays his younger self as manipulative and crassly ambitious. His initial and accidental meeting of Felt occurred in 1969 or 1970, before Woodward even began his newspaper career, when he was a junior Navy officer, carrying documents between the Pentagon and the White House. Woodward was cultivating whoever he thought might be useful in his then unclear future career. Felt, a senior official he chanced to meet at the White House one day, immediately struck him as a fortuitous contact.

Was he ever. Two years later, Woodward was on the biggest story in America for The Post, and Felt, appalled by the Nixon White House's nefarious undermining of his beloved FBI, was willing to help guide him, as long as Woodward agreed to keep his identity secret always. The tradecraft that Felt insisted Woodward use to ensure that secret is worthy of John LeCarre.

The book raises the most intriguing questions about the ambiguous relationship between Woodward and Felt. What were they to each other? Woodward clearly regarded Felt as a mentor, a father figure. Sometimes he refers to him as a friend (the "M.F." in his notes was not a Freudian slip, Woodward insists, but meant, "my friend"). But as Woodward himself says, he also used Felt, and in his stories, went up to the very edge of endangering him. Felt's own motives were hardly free of self-interest. He was offended by the Nixon White House's cynical designs on the FBI, but he also resented being passed over as J. Edgar Hoover's successor. And Felt himself was not above abuses of power (as a later conviction demonstrated).

After Watergate, Felt seemed to enjoy the speculation that he was Deep Throat even as he repeatedly denied it (once flirting with perjury). Woodward himself once lied to a colleague to keep him off Felt's scent. But, Woodward says, keeping the secret always served him well, giving him credibility with countless other confidential sources in the 30 years since Watergate.

In that way, Deep Throat served all American journalists, all Americans for that matter. "There needed to be a model out there," Woodward writes, "where people could come forward or speak when contacted, knowing they would be protected."

With a reporter sitting in jail, those words, from our country's most acclaimed journalist, ring loudly.

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