The Secret That Didn't Reach Washington's Lips
Friday, June 3, 2005
No. I did not know who Deep Throat was. And no. I never asked my husband, Ben Bradlee. Why not? For several reasons. I have too much pride, to begin with. I knew perfectly well Ben wouldn't tell me and I didn't want to be refused. Secondly, I . . . how shall I say this? . . . have a big mouth. It would have been a huge responsibility to know. It was also clear that if somebody else spilled the beans, fingers would be pointed at me.
The most important reason, though, was that I really didn't want Ben to tell, not just me, but anybody. Deep Throat was Bob Woodward's source, not Ben's. And Ben had promised Woodward he would not reveal the source.
Did it make me crazy that I didn't know? Of course! But the thing that really got to me was that Woodward had told his wife, Elsa Walsh. Now Elsa is the Sphinx when it comes to secrets. And it was Bob's source, after all. Still. Every time we were together and the subject of Deep Throat came up, Bob would grin mischievously and say something provocative like, "there are no secrets between Elsa and me," and I would go wild all over again. How could I resist saying to Ben, "Bob must really love Elsa a lot for him to tell her who Deep Throat is"?
There is always a special aura about secrets and about the keepers of those secrets. Washington has a culture of power, and the more power there is, the more secrets there are.
This is why "the leak" has long been an honorable tool in Washington. It is the thing that drives everybody in the White House, no matter what political party, completely nuts, and is the driving force behind effective journalism. So much of what is "secret" in any administration is really about mistakes and wrongdoing. This is why anonymous sources are so invaluable and why journalists have to rely on them in many instances. If nothing else, Deep Throat has brought that idea home this week. He revealed a corrupt administration that could have seriously damaged the country.
There is a saying in Washington that nothing is ever really off the record, and if a story is too good it will eventually get out. That's pretty much true. Which is what makes the Deep Throat story extraordinary and why it's become such a legend. It's also why there were so many theories that there really was no Deep Throat, that he was probably a composite or something Woodward made up to protect himself.
Administrations are always -- and mostly in vain -- trying to protect even small things just to show their power. During Lyndon Johnson's presidency, my husband wrote a story for Newsweek that Johnson had a search underway for a new FBI director to replace J. Edgar Hoover. His source was a leak from the White House. Johnson was so furious over the leak that he held a news conference the day the story ran and announced that he was reappointing Hoover. He turned to a friend of Ben in the room and said, "You can tell Ben Bradlee to go [expletive] himself!"
Years later, John Tower, the powerful Republican senator from Texas, was nominated to be secretary of defense, a job he badly wanted. Tower had a reputation as a serious womanizer. It was a poorly kept secret on the Hill, but most women wouldn't talk. Only one or two had the guts to speak up. Tower, who was a friend of my father, had attempted to sexually assault me when I was 18 and a college freshman. Embarrassed and ashamed, I had kept this story a closely guarded secret for years.
One day, during Tower's confirmation hearings, two FBI officials showed up at my front door and asked me to tell them about the incident. I refused to confirm it. "But you don't understand," one of them said to me, "this will be totally confidential." I burst out laughing. "Are you kidding?" I said. "Where do you think The Washington Post gets its stories? From guys like you who leak."
As it turned out, there were enough stories like mine to deny Tower his confirmation. And later, Anita Hill made a mistake I did not, when she agreed to testify "confidentially" about Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Republicans are much better than Democrats at keeping secrets. They are more disciplined and they punish people who leak. Democrats talk too much and are too disorganized to make people pay.
The Bush crowd is the most tightlipped group of people I have ever seen in Washington. Shortly after 9/11, at a brunch at Don and Joyce Rumsfeld's, the Cheneys were guests. Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld were relaxed and calm, chatting with guests and generally appearing to enjoy themselves. Hours later the United States began bombing Afghanistan. Nobody in the room had a clue what was about to happen. It was a stunning performance.