Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Vanity Fair's big scoop almost didn't happen. It started with a cold call two years ago from John D. O'Connor, a prominent lawyer in the San Francisco Bay area, to the magazine's editor, Graydon Carter. O'Connor, according to David Friend, an editor at the magazine, said he had a client "who is Deep Throat, and he wants to come out in the pages of Vanity Fair."
And so began the drama that led to Vanity Fair's revelation yesterday that former FBI official W. Mark Felt was journalist Bob Woodward's famed anonymous source on the Watergate scandal. Woodward's subsequent confirmation filled in what former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee yesterday called "the last act, the last unknown fact" about the events that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.
Guessing at the identity of Deep Throat has been a Washington parlor game and journalistic sub-industry for almost 33 years. Many have tried to unmask the man who was perhaps the most famous whistleblower ever. A few have actually gotten it right.
The problem for Vanity Fair, Friend said, was that O'Connor wanted the magazine to pay Felt and Felt's family for the story -- a condition the magazine would not agree to.
O'Connor -- who had become acquainted with the Felt family through Felt's grandson, a Stanford classmate of O'Connor's daughter -- decided instead to publish Felt's account as a book. But after a year of trying to find a publisher, Friend said, O'Connor was back at Vanity Fair's doorstep.
Therein began a long and secretive process to render Felt's story into print. Although O'Connor was the lead writer, the magazine supplemented his work with research and fact-checking. It corroborated Felt's account by getting his daughter, his son, his daughter-in-law and a former companion to confirm that he had previously revealed his identity as Deep Throat.
About 15 Vanity Fair editors and staff people were eventually assigned to the story, which was code-named WIG (a corruption of "Watergate"). All of those involved signed confidentiality agreements that bound them not to reveal Felt's identity if the piece didn't meet publication standards.
The concern about leaks was such that Joan Felt, Mark Felt's daughter and a key source on the story, began referring to her father as "Joe Camel" -- an alias for a man with one of the most famous nicknames of the past 30 years. As the magazine moved toward publication, the editors used a dummy cover line to shield their story as it went to the printer: "The Car Door Slams."
Friend said neither Woodward nor his Watergate reporting partner Carl Bernstein -- a Vanity Fair contributing editor -- knew about the story until Friend e-mailed them a copy of it yesterday morning. "We felt that if we let Bob or Carl know, The Washington Post would be out before us," said Friend, who was the lead editor.
In fact, The Post was scooped, after keeping Felt's secret for more than three decades.
Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said yesterday that Woodward "did the honorable thing by sticking by his confidentiality agreement" with Felt. "He had agreed not to reveal his identity until [Deep Throat] released him from his pledge or the source died, and he did that."
Although Woodward had checked in with the Felt family periodically, and is writing a book about his relationship with Deep Throat, Downie said Woodward was never told by Felt or his family that he was going public. "Bob was really kind of helpless" because Felt never indicated that their agreement was over, said Downie, who rushed back to Washington from a corporate meeting on the Eastern Shore when the story broke yesterday.