Friday, June 08, 2012

Book review: Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat

As with many people in my age group, my first encounter with the "Deep Throat" character, the for-decades unknown source for Washington Post's reporter Bob Woodward, was in the film based upon the book co-authored by his fellow Watergate investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, All The President's Men.

The director of the film got the casting right--Hal Holbrook's performance as Deep Throat stands the test of time--even after the real source, onetime second-in-charge of the FBI Mark Felt, outed himself in 2005.

Felt died in 2008 at the age of 95.

But why did Felt, who spent his entire professional career with the FBI, become Deep Throat?

In his new book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, Max Holland conducts an investigation of the G-Man's motive.

Was Felt motivated by honor and exposing the abuses of the Nixon White House, as is commonly assumed?

Holland says "No."

Max Holland
After 48 years as director of the FBI and its predecessor organization, J. Edgar Hoover might have seemed immortal, but the men close to him at the organization's headquarters, amazingly referred to by the Bureau as "the seat of government," knew that his days were numbered. Just as Europe had its "wars of succession" in the 18th century, the war for the succession of Hoover was on by 1971, and (sorry, I can't resist)  the director's file was closed forever the following year, six weeks before the Watergate break-in.

"Although a number of senior FBI officials saw a potential director when they looked in the mirror during their morning shave, only three names were commonly bandied about in the press," Holland writes, and one of those names was Mark Felt. As with Kremlin succession, it was important to be in the right place when the time came--but openly campaigning would doom their chances.

But Nixon fooled them all when he chose loyalist L. Patrick Gray, a senior Justice Department official, as acting director.

Felt didn't give up, and Holland details how he leaked information on Watergate and other cases to the press. His goal was to show that Gray was a weak director and that an experienced insider was needed to right the ship--and that man would be of course Felt.

Of course Watergate dominates this book. We learn that Woodward's relationship with Deep Throat/Felt was often testy.

Holland exposes Felt not as a hero but as a shrewd careerist. But not that shrewd, because Felt, who was always a Deep Throat suspect, was quickly discovered by Nixon chief-of-staff H.R. Haldeman as the source of the plethora of the many unauthorized media disclosures.

A Watergate stumble forced Gray to resign, Felt was bypassed again and retired in 1973--53 weeks after the break-in.

Retirement should have brought Felt peace, but he was indicted in 1978 over his role in overseeing warrantless "black bag" surveillance of friends and relatives of Weather Underground members. Felt was found guilty in 1980, but was pardoned by Ronald Reagan a few months later. On a personal note, I finished reading Leak on May 20, the day of the anti-NATO march where I saw--for the third time that month--former Weather Underground terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Felt's wife, who endured 17 moves as he climbed to the "seat of government," committed suicide in 1984.

Holland superbly recounts how the Watergate scandal played out, which is a necessity. I'm someone who believes himself to be well-versed on the scandal--but Watergate is complicated--even Woodward and Bernstein initially couldn't figure it out. The cover-up was the heart of the scandal, and it wasn't so much about the burglary but rather the illegal White House surveillance activities carried out by G. Gordon Liddy and his "plumbers."

After reading Leak, I can confidently declare that Felt was an opportunist--not a hero.

Once again, Marathon Pundit is a participant in the TLC Book Tour.

Holland has a blog, which you can visit here.


Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Sounds like the author makes enough convincing arguments to bring you over to his point of view!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Anonymous said...

It's always clear when a reviewer genuinely reads a book (at least to the author). Thanks for being open-minded and objective on the subject . . . not everyone is!