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Deep Thoughts on Deep Throat

Journalist who interviewed Mark Felt admits she fell into stereotypical labeling and never suspected his identity — or motivation — as the unidentified source. by Stephanie Schorow

Watergate cast a commanding shadow over my four years at Northwestern. I started classes at the Medill School of Journalism in 1972, a few months before Richard Nixon was re-elected president amid vague rumblings about a hotel break-in. Over the next two years I was mesmerized by the minutia of the investigation and cheered as the Nixon presidency crumbled. In my senior year I scored a pass to a screening of All the President’s Men, a Hollywood finish with two reporters as heroes.

Then, in March 1980, I interviewed Deep Throat. Of course I had no idea then that retired No. 2 FBI man W. Mark Felt was the famous anonymous source. I was just an aspiring features reporter at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, who had stumbled upon a review of Felt’s memoir, The FBI Pyramid, and discovered — aha! — he was a native of Twin Falls. In my ever-frenetic drive to find “local” copy, I arranged to interview Felt by phone in his Virginia home.

I would love to confess that I brilliantly deduced from our conversation that Felt was the notorious leaker. But I hung up the phone convinced that this deeply conservative, rigid G-man and unapologetic J. Edgar Hoover supporter could not be the mysterious man in the parking garage. Even today after Felt has come forward, I can’t reconcile my impression of the man with what we know now. The clues were there, but I couldn’t get past my preconceived notions of left-right politics, attitudes even now framing reaction to Felt.

When I called Felt, I didn’t even plan to rehash Watergate. Rather, I wanted to press him on the day’s hot topics: revelations about FBI abuses, including illegal wiretapping and break-ins. Felt was preparing to go on trial for violating the civil rights of friends and supporters of the Weather Underground in the 1970s by authorizing break-ins without a warrant. (He was later convicted, but pardoned by President Reagan.)

Felt wore his indictment like a badge of honor, spouting anti-communist rhetoric that seemed a quaint throwback to the 1950s. He was cordial but guarded; he was more amused than put off by my efforts to challenge him on his defense of procedures that seemed abhorrent to a young liberal reporter. He defended Hoover’s legacy, even if, reluctantly, he conceded some of the director’s quirks. When I pushed him to explain just how far the FBI should go in pursuing radical groups, his reply could be a blueprint for the Patriot Act today. Reforms had tied the hands of FBI agents trying to investigate the threat of violence, he insisted. “This means you almost have to put your fingers in your ears and wait for the gun to go off.”

I did ask Felt about rumors even then circulating that he was Deep Throat. He said there was no Deep Throat — that Bob Woodward’s source was a “composite” of people.

Felt appeared to be dismayed at being pushed to the sidelines of history and was furious over criticisms of the FBI. He seemed happy for attention, even from a small-town reporter, and — somewhat unexpectedly — offered to autograph his book if I would send it to him.

My interview with Felt went into the clip file. I soon left Twin Falls for bigger newspapers. But I remained a Watergate junkie. Over the decades, Felt’s name would appear on the short list of possible Deep Throats. I would think, “Nah.”

And when a frail 91-year-old Felt stepped forward — into a full frontal assault by conservative talking heads — I could only marvel at the right-wing’s attack on one of its own. Felt had no compunction about trashing the Bill of Rights to break into your house if he suspected a communist lurked under your bed. But he believed the FBI had to have a higher purpose, that the country had to be under threat and that Nixon had no higher purpose beyond re-election. However illogical, Felt lived the line of a song by Bob Dylan, a singer I’m sure he despised: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” He kept quiet for 30 years, not because he was conflicted about his actions, but because that’s what a true G-man was — someone who could keep his mouth shut.

I didn’t understand that back in 1980, and the right sure isn’t getting it now with its excoriation of Felt. Maybe Felt did the right thing for the wrong reasons, but there are principles that should transcend partisan politics. We need more sources like him, particularly now that a complacent American press seems so far removed from the shining images in All the President’s Men.

Felt helped alter history. But, dismissing him as an out-of-touch Cold War warrior, I never did send him a copy of his book to autograph.

Stephanie Schorow (J76) is a freelance writer, a former reporter at the Boston Herald and the author of Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston.

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