The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat
by Bob Woodward
(Simon & Schuster) $23.00
IN AN EARLY scene in the movie All the President's Men, Bob Woodward frantically recounts to his editors what he's found out about the mysterious E. Howard Hunt (Hunt's name had turned up in an address book of one of the Watergate burglars). Hunt, Woodward tells his editors, was a consultant for Charles Colson, chief counsel for President Nixon in the White House, and had worked for the CIA.
In the run-up to this scene, you watch Woodward (Robert Redford, actually) sussing out these clues in a series of phone calls in which dark voices on the other end of the line guide Redford through the Watergate mystery. (That's one thing that's so great about ATPM, by the way: some of the best scenes are static shots of Woodward listening to muffled voices on the other end of the phone.)
In a toss-off line that you might not catch, though, Woodward also tells his editors, "Now, this is on deep background, but the FBI thinks [Hunt's] involved with the break-in." Weird. You hadn't seen Woodward get that piece of critical information in the previous scene. Where did that tidbit come from? And so the mystery within the mystery begins. Who's Woodward got on deep background that's privy to the FBI investigation?
With hindsight—now that we know Woodward's source was the number-two guy at the FBI, W. Mark Felt—Redford's line reads like a neon sign; one that probably made Felt cringe in horror when he went to see the movie in 1976.
Watching the movie on DVD in the summer of 2005, I wished people could freeze-frame that scene, double click, and somehow link to Bob Woodward's new book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat. "I called Felt again at the FBI," Woodward writes, citing an early call to Felt, as he recounts the same initial flurry of reporting calls documented in the movie—this time with Felt on display.
"Colson, White House, CIA, I said. What do I have? Felt sounded nervous. He said off the record—meaning I could not use the information—that Hunt was a prime suspect in the Watergate burglary for many reasons beyond the address books. Unknown to me at the time, the FBI had reviewed Hunt's White House personnel file and found that he had worked nearly 600 hours for Colson in less than a year."
As a compendium to All The President's Men (both the great movie and the somewhat unwieldy book published in 1974) The Secret Man is the ultimate hyperlink, fleshing out not only the longstanding Deep Throat mystery, but also the entire Watergate affair itself. I imagine that in 50 years, this book, not ATPM, will serve as the Watergate primer. By telling the story with Felt as the main character—for example, The Secret Man begins with an amazing story where Felt actually initiates a decoy FBI investigation into the Watergate leak—the story takes on a verisimilitude that was always missing from the awkward APTM account. The dirty details of Felt's immaculate machinations reemphasize what was always the best, scariest, saddest, and most unbelievable thing about Watergate: It really happened.
The going criticism of Woodward's book, though, is that he doesn't really shed any conclusive light onto Felt's motivations—he simply ponders the whys and hows. And despite a later section of the book where, indeed, Woodward does burden the reader with his own existential (and boring) discussions with his wife about the ethics of it all, I actually got a perfect sense of what Felt was up to. Woodward sums it up in his conclusion: "The crimes and abuses were background music. Nixon was trying to subvert not only the law but also the Bureau. So Watergate became Felt's instrument to reassert the Bureau's... supremacy." It wasn't what Nixon did that bugged Felt. It was how Nixon did it.
Woodward is right on two counts. Not only did the White House derail the FBI's investigation into Watergate and, more importantly, cut off the investigation into related White House espionage, but it created—through the ratfucking squad of Nixon's Plumbers—a B-movie, surrogate version of the FBI. Nixon's paranoia about the Democrats compelled him to create his own "intelligence" agency.
Felt, who Woodward shows to be a consummate counterintelligence agent dating back to his work outing Nazi spies in WWII, was obviously offended at both Nixon's clampdown on the FBI (shredding files of the FBI's investigation into Howard Hunt, for example) and at the slimy decision to pay thugs like G. Gordon Liddy to do secret agent work against the Democrats that it couldn't ask the FBI to do.
I think, ultimately, super-spy Felt was offended at what has long been the bottom line analysis of Watergate: It was just a "third-rate burglary."