What’s That Choking Noise? Bob Woodward’s Self-Scrutiny

The Secret Man: The Story
of Watergate’s Deep Throat
by Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster. 249 pages, $23.

The Secret Man, Bob Woodward’s absorbingly anticlimactic
Deep Throat book, has two revelations to offer. One is small, though rather
marvelous. The other—hidden in plain sight in the title—is bigger, if also
highly diffuse and inconclusive.

No. 1 is that someone who wasn’t supposed to know the identity of Deep Throat
knew. And kept the secret for 29 years.

rest of us have been wondering about Deep Throat since 1974 when he first
popped up in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men. Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of him in the
movie version two years later guaranteed iconic status for the secret source.
“Follow the money,” he counseled Robert Redford’s Woodward, a breathtakingly
concise capturing of the essence of Watergate—as well as a sign of how
political fact was already becoming pop-culture legend: The words, which
appeared nowhere in the collected works of Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein, were
the formulation of screenwriter William Goldman.

legend was also fast becoming pop-culture mania. For more than three decades, trying
to unmask Deep Throat was a minor Washington cottage industry. “Minor” may not
be quite accurate: Deep Throat Industries has always had an enviable P/E
ratio—“P,” in this case, standing for “publicity.” (Witness NBC’s hour-long
prime-time special scheduled to coincide with the book’s publication.)

or not, Deep Throat Industries found itself unexpectedly acquired, as one might
say, by Condé Nast on May 31, when news broke that the July issue of Vanity Fair contained an article
headlined, “I’m the Guy They Called Deep Throat.” The guy was W. Mark Felt, the
onetime No. 2 man at the F.B.I. and someone who’d long been thought a prime
candidate for Deep Throat–hood (Washingtonian
magazine had fingered him as early as 1974).

small part of the thickly encrusted lore surrounding Deep Throat was that only
a handful of people could identify him. It was well known that, besides Messrs.
Woodward and Bernstein, former Washington
executive editor Ben Bradlee knew. Mr. Woodward relates that he’d also
told both his wife and Mr. Bradlee’s successor, Leonard Downie Jr. Somewhat
sheepishly, he adds that Stanley Pottinger knew, too.

Who? Mr. Pottinger served as an assistant attorney general in the Ford
administration. He was present one day in 1976 when Mr. Felt was testifying
before a grand jury about break-ins he’d ordered in the early 70’s at the homes
of relatives of members of the radical Weathermen group. Mr. Felt airily
mentioned that some people actually thought he
was Deep Throat. “Were you?” a grand juror asked. Suddenly looking stricken,
Mr. Felt perjured himself—that is, he said no. An alert Mr. Pottinger, seeing
at once what was up, whispered to the witness that if he wished, since the
matter was “outside the bounds of our official investigation,” both question
and answer could be expunged. A relieved Mr. Felt very much so wished, and at
that moment Mr. Pottinger joined the board of Deep Throat Industries.

safely anonymous, Mr. Felt in 1978 flatly denied to The Wall Street Journal that he was Deep Throat: “I’m just not that
kind of person,” he said (a denial wonderfully adamant in its vagueness). Mr.
Woodward recalls thinking at the time, “Did he know who he was? Did I?” Note
how the second sentence allows for two readings: Did Bob Woodward know who Mark
Felt was—or who Bob Woodward himself was?

is revelation No. 2: The Secret Man on display in The Secret Man is as much Bob Woodward as Mark Felt. No, more: Just
as Mr. Felt helped Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein to reveal the intricacies of
Watergate, so he now helps Mr. Woodward to reveal the intricacies of Bob
Woodward. The resultant self-portrait “is not all that admirable,” he
confesses. “I was pushy, secretive, I used Mark Felt and I lied.” A weirdly
mechanical self-doubt plagues him as he keeps fretting over his relationship
with Mr. Felt, like the ethical equivalent of a sick tooth. Watching him nag
and probe and refuse to take no for an answer, one can see in good measure what
makes him such an extraordinary reporter. What’s so odd is that he himself is
the object of all the nagging and probing and refusing.

isn’t something one expects (or necessarily seeks) from Bob Woodward. As a
fitting grace note, The Secret Man
includes an afterword from Carl Bernstein. With knowing fondness, Mr. Bernstein
describes his former partner as “the staid man from the Midwest,” a disciplined
overachiever “prone to complete his homework before it is due or even
assigned.” Mr. Woodward long ago became the Joe Friday of big-foot American journalism,
the dean of due diligence, using his unrivaled access to the inner sanctums of
government and a just-the-facts approach to crank out a succession of
best-selling books that manage to be both weighty and weightless, all-knowing
and (insofar as they shrink from context or perspective) clueless. Not for
nothing did Joan Didion famously dismiss him as the author of “books in which
measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

the heart has its reasons reporting knows nothing of. “No longer the
30-year-old reporter chasing the story,” Mr. Woodward writes, he had “naturally
become more interested in motive.” The
Secret Man
might best be described as what does (or doesn’t) happen when
Joe Friday finds himself wanting to be Graham Greene. But motivation is a
tricky business, and never more so than when the motivation is one’s own. And
even if exposing the whys and wherefores of Mr. Felt’s actions had been Mr.
Woodward’s sole aim, there isn’t all that much he could tell us: Their
encounters were few and, invariably, for lack of a better term, other-directed.
The young Bob Woodward was generally looking for one of two things: the goods
on Richard Nixon or career advice. That’s how they first met, one evening in
late 1969 or early 70, on “the lower level of the West Wing,” as each cooled
his heels waiting to meet with a higher-up. Mr. Woodward, then a Navy
lieutenant, was delivering a package from the Pentagon. He struck up a
conversation seeking guidance on his future … and barely three years later,
there they were in late-night parking garages, the dark fields of the Republic
updated, helping determine the outcome of our long national nightmare.

Watergate, they spoke a few times on the phone—never comfortably. Mr. Woodward
watched with mounting concern as Mr. Felt was convicted in 1980 of violating
the civil rights of the Weathermen relatives whose homes were broken into.
(President Reagan soon pardoned him.) The most extensive meeting between them
came 20 years later—this is as close as The
Secret Man
comes to having a climax—when Mr. Woodward showed up unannounced
at Mr. Felt’s door, in Santa Rosa, Calif., and took him out to lunch. There
were no hard feelings on Deep Throat’s part, and Mr. Woodward was mightily

there were hardly any feelings—or
memories. By then, Mr. Felt was suffering from senile dementia. There’s
something at once painful and ludicrous in Mr. Woodward’s repeated efforts to
quiz his secret source about their shared past. All the President’s Men keeps peeking out from the pages of The Secret Man, but in this regard the
more resonant Woodward title is Veil,
his 1987 book about C.I.A. covert activity during the Reagan years. Veil ended with Mr. Woodward slipping
into the hospital room of the dying William Casey, former head of the C.I.A.,
and trying to get him to admit he knew of the diversion of funds to the
Nicaraguan contras. “I believed,” Casey says, “I believed,” before drifting off
into sleep.

did Deep Throat believe and when did he believe it? Mr. Woodward can never
know, and it drives him crazy. And it’s not just the larger issues of motive
and rationale. Mr. Woodward can’t determine—and, for the Watergate buff, this
is the book’s deepest disappointment—how Mr. Felt managed to spot the flag on
Mr. Woodward’s balcony that signaled a desire to meet, or how Mr. Felt got to
Mr. Woodward’s copy of The New York Times
to signal his own need for a meeting.

reporter that he is, Mr. Woodward sets out the various elements that might have
moved Mr. Felt to be Deep Throat: jealousy that not he but L. Patrick Gray had
been named J. Edgar Hoover’s successor as F.B.I. director; revulsion over the
misdeeds of the Nixon White House; a desire to protect the bureau and its
Watergate investigation; a fundamental commitment to seeing justice done; and
so on. What Mr. Woodward can’t do—no one can now, not even Mark Felt—is work
those elements into a coherent, fully nuanced moral portrait. It’s both
touching and exasperating to watch Mr. Woodward try—touching because he’s
striving for a degree of moral imagination otherwise lacking in his work,
exasperating because he’s so clearly incapable of succeeding.

stumbling block isn’t just Mr. Felt’s dotage. It’s the author’s own implacable
Woodwardness. Near the end of his book, he remarks on the frequent inability of
insiders—White House insiders, he means, not media insiders like himself—to get
at the truth of a political or historical situation. He adds that “at times,
the journalist, the historian and even the novelist paints the fullest picture
of an era.” “Even”? Even? Joe Friday
might want to be Graham Greene, but he just can’t bring himself to respect him.
In his heart he’s still just after the facts. And Deep Throat—both in his
revealed identity and in his enduring cultural resonance—greatly transcends the

Felt may have understood that. Unlike Mr. Woodward, he had an artist’s
imagination. When Mr. Woodward called him two months before that impromptu
lunch in Santa Rosa, the conversation was inconclusive. “I’ll hang up,” Mr.
Felt said, ending it. “And this closet door can be a closed door.” It’s the
single best line in the book, almost spookily good. Equally striking is the
bold, sweeping “F” that Mr. Felt used to sign F.B.I. memos. Mr. Woodward reproduces
it in the book: It’s like the mark of Zorro, a Deep Throat ideogram,
simultaneously assertive and inscrutable. Pace
Bob Woodward, we require a novelist to decode it.

Mark Feeney, a reporter
The Boston Globe, is author of Nixon at the Movies: A
Book about Belief (University of Chicago
What’s That Choking Noise? Bob Woodward’s Self-Scrutiny