The remarkable thing about the revelation of the identity of the Watergate-era tipster known as "Deep Throat" is that nothing about the news seems particularly remarkable.
In hindsight, we should have known that Washington Post writer Bob Woodward's source for the investigative reports he and Carl Bernstein wrote about Nixon-era illegality would not be an idealist who sought to expose a corrupt presidency -- nor even a Nixon aide experiencing a rare bout of conscience. Rather, like so many of Woodward's sources over the years, W. Mark Felt was a consummate Washingtion insider playing the sort of games that consumate Washington insiders play.
Far from being someone who feared for the Republic, Felt was a zealous protégé of a man who menaced the Republic for decades, longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover.
It is difficult to buy the line that Felt was all that worried about Nixonian skulduggery, as the tipster himself would eventually be convicted of authorizing federal agents to illegally break into the homes of suspected anti–Vietnam War radicals.
Indeed, it appears that "Deep Throat" was less concerned about defending democracy than about getting back at then–President Richard Nixon for refusing him the directorship after Hoover's death in May 1972.
So Watergate ends up as another story of powerful men undercutting one another in a squabble over turf and bruised egos.
But, of course, there is more to the Watergate story than that. Despite the fact that Felt comes off as something less than a hero, he was a necessary player in a national drama that had a happy ending: A dishonest and dishonorable president was exposed and forced from office.
Perhaps this is why there is so much fascination with Watergate. It reminds us that the American experiment really can yield positive results, especially when the Fourth Estate prods Congress to police an out-of-control Executive Branch.
Considering the current circumstances of the nation, when Woodward and so many other members of the Washington press corps act as little more than stenographers to power, this week's renewed attention to the Watergate story ought to inspire an aching nostalgia in Americans who still take their citizenship seriously. It is inspiring to think that the system did once work; but it is painful to recognize the reality that Richard Nixon would never have been forced from office by today's major media organizations or today's Congress. And it is agonizing to think of how the far more serious crimes of presidents who succeeded Nixon -- especially, though certainly not exclusively, those of the current occupant of the White House -- go essentially unchallenged, even as more credible and patriotic Deep Throats than Mr. Felt have emerged. (The failure of most news outlets to examine what has come to be referred to as the Downing Street memo, official British documents that confirm George Bush's machinations to start a war-of-whim with Iraq, provides ample evidence that presidents no longer have much to fear from major media.)
Ultimately, now that Deep Throat has been revealed as just another cynical Washington insider working the system for all it was worth, one Watergate mystery remains. And it turns out to be a far more perplexing and troublesome one than that of some back-alley tipster's identity.
What remains is the mystery of how America, a country that proved her ability to depose a petty crook from power in the 1970s, has drifted so far from her ethical moorings. At the most fundamental level, it is not so difficult to unravel this mystery. A simple calculation of the roles of big media and big money campaign contributions provides most if not all of the explanation that is needed. But that calculus points to the lingering quandry of our time: Will we ever muster enough outrage at a stenographic media and a compliant Congress to steer America back to that place where lawless presidents are held accountable for their lies and the deadly consequences of their misdeeds?
John Nichols' new book is Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books).
© 2005 The Nation