In the context of Washington intrigue, W. Mark Felt was heroic in the
scale of his clandestine truth-telling, but he was not unique. These
transactions by insiders are routine and often motivated by
self-interest or political goals. Felt saw himself as wronged, perhaps,
in being passed over to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director, but in
addition he saw the institution where he'd spent his career threatened.
He knew the White House was acting criminally but probably also knew
that these events would never lead to official investigation and
prosecution unless--a remote possibility--the public story became much,
much bigger and too shocking to bury. He took considerable personal risk
to stimulate this. Whatever his motives, that was his gift to the
So it is ludicrous to imagine that reporters should stop using unnamed
sources. In Washington, that's like telling them to stop
reporting--stick to the official version (come to think of it, many
reporters already do). With experience, the old hands in Washington from
business or diplomacy or politics learn to read the newspapers as opaque
message boards, and they fill in the blanks of who's leaking and for
what purposes. This cuts out the public, to be sure, but resembles the
courtiers in any royal government. The king wants it known, so his
attendants leak. Sometimes, the king needs to know what his aides are
not telling him, so someone else leaks to the press. Of course, if the
king himself never reads the newspapers, he remains in the dark, muddled
and manipulated by the stronger figures around him. Does that sound
But the Deep Throat story reminds me primarily of the uniqueness of
Woodward and Bernstein. They were so young. They made Washington Post
editor Ben Bradlee nervous. What if these kids are wrong or getting
conned by their "sources"? Other editors were less charitable in their
skepticism. Yet Bradlee sucked it up and kept them on the story.
And Katharine Graham sucked it up and stuck with Bradlee. This
remarkable story of human interactions inside an important
institution--people taking a conscientious gamble on one another--is
what now seems so unique and meaningful to me. Can we imagine these
events happening inside government or media today?
Now we know what Bradlee knew (and as a young Post reporter I never doubted): The kid reporters had impeccable sources. They were digging and piecing facts together and pulling fragments from some people who were themselves very close to power. Those insiders were revolted by what they saw inside the Nixon Administration--and frightened. So they did the right thing. Then Bob and Carl had the guts and the methodology to find the story, one element after another. Then Bradlee and Graham had the guts to publish it. Quaint as it seems, this is called courage. Their example is the Watergate legacy. It's not surprising that contemporary Washington wishes to devalue it.
National affairs correspondent William Greider has been a political journalist for more than thirty-five years.
© 2005 The Nation