It was grimly unsurprising that the usual suspects lined up to condemn Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, as a traitor and a rat for snitching on his putative boss, Richard Nixon. Pat Buchanan, G. Gordon Liddy and the rest of that honorable cadre seemed almost delighted to note that Mr. Felt had the proverbial ax to grind-i.e., Nixon had passed over him by appointing L. Patrick Gray as J. Edgar Hoover’s successor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Somehow, we’re supposed to think that because Mr. Felt may have had less-than-pure motives, his tales of constitutional mayhem are somehow less believable. Of course, if in 1998 or so some hack or bureaucrat with a score to settle had come forward to tell unseemly truths about Bill Clinton, it’s a fair bet that he or she would have been lionized as a great national hero.
Wait! Hold on! If memory serves, there was indeed a great and courageous teller of truths back then. Her name was Linda Tripp, and it was she who helped prove to the world without question that Bill Clinton was a cheap adulterer and a liar. Of course, Clinton supporters tended to regard Ms. Tripp with the same distaste that the righties have demonstrated for Mr. Felt. All of which reminds us that one person’s whistleblower is another person’s rat fink.
Indeed, as Jeremiah and Isaiah learned a few millennia ago, it’s the rare truth teller who achieves anything approximating universal affection or respect. Frank Serpico, who broke the blue wall of silence to tell of police misbehavior in the 1970’s, was accorded lionhood status among liberals, who tend to believe the worst about cops anyway. But he wasn’t particularly well received in the city’s precinct stationhouses. Whittaker Chambers was a hero to some for the role he played in exposing Alger Hiss-but don’t mention his name at a fashionable Manhattan dinner party.
Journalists generally ought to side with those who bring unpleasant truths to light, but that isn’t always the case. When that delightful fellow Sammy (the Bull) Gravano broke the mob’s code of silence to tell us that John Gotti actually was a bit more than just a well-dressed, charming rogue, he was denounced in the tabloids as, yes, a rat. Mr. Gravano struck me as a classic whistleblower, entitled to protection and even encouragement. But the romantics in the press corps asserted that Mr. Gravano was a no-good tattletale who was being mean to that nice man Mr. Gotti.
At a slightly more elevated level, the corporate equivalents of Sammy the Bull are often accorded no better treatment in the press. They are routinely described as “disgruntled.” In fact, to hear the Nixon defenders in recent days, their hero was done in by the ultimate disgruntled employee, the No. 2 man at the F.B.I. This tactic is hardly novel; in fact, it’s used on a daily basis in private industry. Professional spokespeople regularly issue non-denials of sordid corruption or rank malfeasance by dismissing such charges as the work of disgruntled employees. That’s how you know that the charges are true.
I never quite understood why professional spokespeople and other apologists rely so heavily on the “disgruntled” defense. As a rule, most unpleasant truths are spoken by “disgruntled” people-why, after all, would a gruntled person meet a reporter in a parking garage or deliver documents to a district attorney or tell a gossip columnist the real story behind the latest masthead change at Idle Rich magazine?
People become disgruntled when their ambitions are denied, as may have been the case with Mr. Felt. But some people also become disgruntled when they see incompetence, corruption and thievery that are hidden from the rest of us. If everybody were gruntled, even in the face of wrongdoing, journalists and prosecutors would have a much harder time of it.
Mark Felt may indeed have been disgruntled, but that means absolutely nothing. He may have had it in for Richard Nixon, but then again, by 1973, he was hardly alone. What distinguished him from the professional Nixon-haters is that he had no ideological or partisan ax to grind. He knew about abuse of power at the highest levels of government, and he helped bring it to light.
Isn’t that what public servants ought to do? Wouldn’t we be better served if there were more disgruntled people out there? After all, the people we’ll be celebrating on July 4 were famously disgruntled, luckily for the rest of us. Gruntled people don’t leak to reporters, and they most certainly do not start revolutions.
In the end, so much of the coverage of Deep Throat’s role in exposing Watergate neglected the salient fact that Richard Nixon was done in not so much by the disgruntled Mark Felt, but by his own words captured on tape.
Come to think of it, Richard Nixon was a pretty disgruntled fellow himself.