February 22, 2012

New book says Nixon was just collateral damage for an ambitious Deep Throat

by

Jack Shafer has high praise for a new book about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting and their most famous source, W. Mark Felt. The book is Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat by Max Holland, to be published March 6 by University Press of Kansas. In a Reuters opinion piece, Shafer writes that:

Leak overturns once and for all the romantic, popular interpretation of the Watergate saga of one inside source risking it all to save democracy. “Nixon’s downfall was an entirely unanticipated result of Felt’s true and only aim,” Holland writes. Although Holland never disparages the enterprise of Woodward and Bernstein, acknowledging the impact their reports had on Judge John J. Sirica and the senators who formed an investigative committee, neither does he bow to them. “Contrary to the widely held perception that the Washington Post ‘uncovered’ Watergate, the newspaper essentially tracked the progress of the FBI’s investigation, with a time delay ranging from weeks to days, and published elements of the prosecutors’ case well in advance of the trial.” […] Holland makes the persuasive case that Felt, who died in 2008, used the classic techniques of counterintelligence he learned as an FBI agent to destabilize his main bureaucratic opponent inside the FBI (Acting Director L. Patrick Gray) with his leaks to Woodward (and other journalists). The goal of his leaks was to nudge President Richard Nixon in the direction of appointing him FBI director instead of Gray.

In praising Holland’s book, Shafer also gives a tip of the hat to Melville House author Edward Jay Epstein, who in 1974 both questioned the importance of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting and correctly identified their source as Felt. Leak, Shafer writes:

[V]indicates journalist Edward Jay Epstein, one of the earliest critics of Woodsteinmania. In a Commentary piece published in July 1974, about a month after the Woodstein book came out, Epstein eviscerates what he calls the “sustaining myth of journalism.” Naïve readers believe that intrepid reporters expose government scandals by doggedly working their confidential sources. Of course such scoops do occur, but the more conventional route to a prize-winning series is well-placed leaks from well-oiled government investigations, which Holland maintains was the case with Watergate.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.

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