Mark Felt and the Power of Myth

By: Alicia Shepard

Everyone needs to take a deep breath and gain some perspective on the recent revelation that has ended our long national parlor game. While we now know who Deep Throat is, there’s an enormous difference between the myth and the man.

The man — about whom we know little — is W. Mark Felt, the No. 2 at the FBI in 1972, who offered guidance to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward as Watergate unfolded. The myth, which the country knows well, is a larger-than-life character.

While the myth and the closely held secret have captivated us for 30 years, how important was the man in the 27-month-long Watergate saga? Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein can best answer that, and they have — although their words have been obscured in the media frenzy that erupted since Vanity Fair magazine released Throat’s identity last week.

“Felt’s role in this can be overstated,” said Bernstein in The Washington Post. “When we wrote the book [‘All the President’s Men’], we didn’t think his role would achieve such mythical dimensions. You see there that Felt/Deep Throat largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources.”

The reality is Felt/Throat was an excellent source, and one who offered reassurance to then-Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee that the newspaper was on the right track. But Throat was only one of many sources who encouraged Woodward and Bernstein. His participation in the reporting was the limited kind. He coached Woodstein, he helped put the pieces together, and he confirmed information. But he also got some things wrong, and he wasn’t always available when they needed him.

If Deep Throat’s help is thought to be solely responsible for bringing down Nixon, that would be insulting to the myriad of other sources who helped Woodstein. It would also undermine the roles of Watergate Judge John J. Sirica, who sentenced the Watergate burglars in March 1973; Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed on July 16, 1973, that Nixon had a secret taping system; and the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled on July 24, 1974, that Nixon must turn over the tapes.

What about the Watergate grand jury? What about the House and Senate hearings? The special prosecutors? And what does that say about the role of Carl Bernstein, since everyone has known for decades that Deep Throat was exclusively Woodward’s source?

In short, Felt’s contributions do not match the mythical figure that Deep Throat has grown into in the public mind over the last three decades. But that’s not Felt’s fault.

“That’s the power of myth,” wrote Barry Sussman, Woodstein’s immediate editor at the Post during Watergate. Sussman says Throat was a minor contributor who grew into a giant over the years after Watergate because his identity was a mystery: “True, he offered encouragement that Watergate was important at a time when hardly any other news organizations were going after the story. That was nice, but we knew it on our own.”

Deep Throat’s role would not have exploded into mythical dimensions without the clever mind of late Washington Post managing editor Howard Simons, who coined the moniker after a wildly popular porn film when Woodward wasn’t giving names. At the time, Woodward referred to his source as “my friend.” Can you imagine last week’s revelation being so sensational if the shadowy character in “All the President’s Men” were called “My Friend?”

The popular Deep Throat that lives today in the public’s imagination is a creation of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. We know him best because of his catchy newsroom name and because he was immortalized in Woodward and Bernstein’s wildly popular 1974 book on which the film was based. But that’s a character.

The Hollywood Deep Throat is credited with offering the famous sage advice to Woodward: “Follow the money.” In fact, those words were made up by screenwriter William Goldman — a fact that even surprised even Woodward, who over the years had come to think they were written in his book.

While agreeing that the words “follow the money” were never uttered, Woodward said in February at the opening of his and Bernstein’s Watergate archives in Austin, Texas, that “the phrase has become shorthand for good reporting.”

Some history here: When Woodward and Bernstein first conceived writing a book in fall 1972, there was no Deep Throat. In fact, it wasn’t even about them. It was going to be a third-person story that began with either the 1960 lost Nixon election or Kennedy’s assassination and then described the “life and action of the 17 major conspirators,” according to notes in the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate papers, which the pair sold for $5 million to University of Texas at Austin.

There wasn’t going to be a Deep Throat or even a dynamic reporting duo. The idea to make “All the President’s Men” about Woodward and Bernstein came from Robert Redford, who was fascinated with their David-Goliath story. He didn’t care about the 17 conspirators. He saw the odd pairing of straight-laced Republican Woodward and the rumpled liberal Bernstein going up against the White House as the real story.

“What other society can produce results like they did, where the lowest person on the ladder can affect the highest person on the ladder?” Redford told me in 2003, adding that the pair encouraged him in 1973 to wait until their book was finished before doing a movie.

“I don’t need to wait for the book,” an exasperated Redford told them. “I want permission to make a film about what you guys did.”

After that meeting, the pair mentioned his idea to their editor at Simon & Schuster, Alice Mayhew. “This is what I was told by Bob,” Redford said. “They said, ‘Redford wanted to make this movie about us.’ She told them that might be a better book to write. She must have had her mind on the prize, realizing that book sales would go better with the movie.”

She was right. The book became Woodward and Bernstein’s personal story, using a dramatic character — Deep Throat — to refer to one of their highest-level sources. Would that shadowy source have lived on in the over-40 crowd’s psyche for three decades had he not been a literary device with an unforgettable name?

Learning that Felt is the man behind Deep Throat is a momentous revelation for Watergate buffs and historians, but let’s not forget, as Redford said the other day, that Deep Throat as a character had terrific cinematic and theatrical value. So much so that Redford, who played Woodward in the movie, admitted on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” that he didn’t want Throat’s identity released before his 1976 movie came out.

“I figured, if Bob ever wanted me to know, he’d tell me,” Redford told Matthews. “And in the meantime, part of me hoped that it wouldn’t come out because the mystery has such theatrical advantages.”

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