Wabash Professors Reflect on Watergate's Impact

June 1, 2005

We asked several Wabash College professors to comment on 'Deep Throat's' identification and Watergate in regards to politics, journalism and history.

Here are their comments:

Melissa Butler, Professor of Political Science:

So the big secret’s finally out!  We’ve been waiting so long!

I’m afraid I was a Watergate junkie of the highest order — I was glued to the hearings and actually attended twice in person, once on the day that Jeb Stuart Magruder gave his little "William Sloane Coffin speech" and also on one of the days that John Dean testified.  I was in grad school at Hopkins in Baltimore and was working for Garry Wills (who was on the "Enemies’ List!)

Was Felt a hero? I suppose the answer to that depends on his motivation. Why did Felt become "Deep Throat"?  Obviously, pundits are going to have a field day speculating. Were his motivations partisan? Apparently not. Were they personal? Some critics are already pointing to disgruntlement at being passed over when L.Patrick Gray was appointed to succeed J. Edgar Hoover. Were there political motivations? Yes, I think so, but "political" in a special sense, wrapped up in institutional loyalty, an underappreciated part of the checks and balances that make up our system. The identification of "Deep Throat" as the No. 2 man at the FBI points to the tendency of strong American institutions to resist the efforts of presidents to redirect or undermine them. The tendency can be bad or good! Felt no doubt saw the Nixon administration politicizing and thus abusing the FBI. Felt was an FBI guy and, through his role as "Deep Throat" was able to combat that abuse of power. Yet, the FBI to which Felt was loyal was J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and it’s no stretch to say that Hoover himself had politicized and abused power through his use of the FBI. No president would dare take on the FBI under Hoover to reign in his abuses. Were his motives larger than that? I guess we’ll have to wait and hear from him and from Bob Woodward.

How important was "Deep Throat" to Watergate? I’d say critical, not necessarily for the actual information supplied, but more for the level of credibility he provided for Woodward. Remember, Woodward and Bernstein were not elite White House reporters. As I recall, Bernstein got the story because he was on the police beat when the Watergate burglary happened — a "third rate burglary attempt!" How and why would anyone believe that that would topple a president reelected by one of the widest margins in US electoral history? While the Washington Post might not have been known for pro-Nixon sympathies, Ben Bradlee was certainly taking a risk in publishing the Watergate stories. Knowing that the No. 2 man at the FBI was Woodward’s source probably gave Bradlee the confidence he needed to publish the stories. It’s no stretch to say that the Post stories kept up the pressure that led to the Watergate hearings, but the hearings would have resulted in little but a black eye for a second term lame duck president had it not been for Alexander Butterfield’s revelation that Nixon tape-recorded his Oval Office conversations. Only then did it become possible to get beyond a "he-said/he said" pitting Dean against Nixon. The tapes substantially supported Dean’s testimony before the Watergate Committee. Nonetheless, the tape that finally undid Nixon was one Dean hadn’t known about, namely an Oval Office conversation right after the break-in in which Nixon authorized the cover-up.

Openness is at the heart of the American system, but openness is always likely to be contested. Even in the most buttoned-up of White Houses it is difficult to keep total control of information, to stonewall, to limit damage, to spin. The press has a vital role to play in providing a more complete picture. Sometimes providing that more complete picture requires the use of anonymous sources—so here’s the dilemma: greater openness and transparency are sometimes possible only by ensuring anonymity and guarding secrets!

David Hadley,  Professor of Political Science:

It's an interesting footnote to  the Watergate story and the story of the ultimate demise of the Nixon presidency. Deep Throat's actual identity is less important than the confirmation that there was a real person in a position within the government who provided confirmation for the details of the Watergate story as it was being developed by Woodward and Bernstein. For those who weren't around in 1972 to 1974, Felt did not leak the inside story to the reporters, but confirmed details they had gleaned from other sources.

That it turns out to have been Felt just underlines the complexity of our system, of our governmental institutions, and the people who make them up. I would guess that he was motivated by a combination of personal motivations (anger at having been passed over for the directorship of the FBI) and institutional loyalties (the possibility that the FBI was being compromised by efforts to cover up the abuses of the Nixon White House or given a bad name for not revealing what some of its leaders knew).

I find it interesting that some of the participants in the Watergate abuses, among them Chuck Colson and G. Gordon Liddy, individuals who went to jail for illegal activities, are coming out publicly to label Felt a bum rather than hero. Colson, in particular, was an active participant in the efforts to control information coming from the administration that was trying to use the CIA and the FBI to further the coverup.

Stephen Morrilo, Professor of History:

The revelation strikes me not only as not that big a deal (Felt was one of the people on the short list of possibles already), but symptomatic of a problem with contemporary journalism: that the focus is too often on the storyteller and not the story. Almost as if, 2800 years later, we were still reading biographies of Homer but never reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. 

Yes, that the Watergate story came out is important, and Felt was part of that story coming out.  But the real story about Watergate is the one about corruption and abuse of power - a story with striking current relevance. Yet Tom DeLay's many scandals go under-reported, the US press in Iraq is closely circumscribed ... the list goes on and on. 

I'm afraid the moral of the Mark Felt story for those in power now is "make sure of the absolute loyalty of everyone in any kind of sensitive position, control all news as tightly as possible (including illegally creating and funding your own government propaganda in the guise of 'real news' stories), and if a revelation of corruption does emerge, turn all your energies to smearing the sources (calling them unpatriotic and anti-religious are good starting points)."



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