Even Deepest Of Throats Can't Keep Mum

By Donna Britt
Friday, June 3, 2005

What do you get the moment a long-provocative question is answered?

More questions.

Now that we know the answer to the three-decade-old question "Who's Deep Throat? -- the official Washington tattletale whose anonymous revelations helped to unseat a president -- new questions have arisen:

What was the motive of former FBI second-in-command W. Mark Felt for helping The Post break open the Watergate scandal? What's the deal with 91-year-old Felt's timing? His mental stability? How did he know facts to which he supposedly wasn't privy?

In a world in which suburban housewives and nerdy accountants romp naked on cable-TV reality shows, and in which Tom Cruise leaps onto Oprah's sofa to scream about his new flame, my question is more basic:

Can human beings -- a species whose members can no more help confessing their sins than committing them -- keep a hot secret?

For most people, including Felt, the answer is, "Not really."

We love secrets. The only thing some of us enjoy more than hearing about others' hidden stuff is cultivating our own -- and then blabbing it. Would Catholicism have thrived without that dark, enfolding booth into which believers can slip, confess their worst and leave, confident that the listener cannot tell without risking hellfire?

Some people keep secrets no matter what. Others remain silent only when they know that any bean-spilling would be traced to them, or when sharing a secret might mean sharing the responsibility -- and fallout -- for ugly truths that seep out.

Between us: If your tattling dismantled a presidency, could you keep mum?

Deep Throat's identity was a generation's best-kept secret, right up there with the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. Just as several somebodies out there doubtless know what happened to the long-disappeared Teamsters boss, more people were aware of Mr. Throat's identity than anyone guessed.

Felt's late wife must have known; after her death, Felt blabbed to a lady friend -- who tattled to her son and his wife. After years of being questioned by by his daughter, Felt confessed his Deep Throatness to her -- and to his son, and his daughter's son. He even hinted at the truth to his Fijian caretaker. Three years ago, Felt confided in John D. O'Connor, the attorney whose article in the new Vanity Fair was Felt's first public acknowledgement.

Other tongues might have wagged. In 1999, a childhood friend of the son of Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein and ex-wife Nora Ephron claimed that the couple's then 8-year-old son told him Throat's identity at summer camp -- a revelation that Bernstein and Ephron say was based solely on her best guess.

Felt's admission freed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward to reveal that Felt, a World War II spy hunter who became his mentor, friend and most significant source, savored their secret -- and the espionage-like "game" that their exchanges became.

Felt "beat it into my head: secrecy at all cost, no loose talk, no talk about him at all, no indication to anyone that such a secret source existed," Woodward said in yesterday's Post.

For all his Bond-like maneuvers -- secret signals, hushed meetings in a Rosslyn parking garage -- Felt was clearly tortured by his role in Watergate. Only he could be sure whether he told Woodward what he knew out of spite for being passed over for the FBI's top position, or out of disgust for Nixon's corruption, or some combination of both.

He also knew this:

Strangers and former colleagues would denigrate him if he revealed himself -- as many are doing now. A veteran who joined the FBI when G-men were cultural gods, Felt realized that though many Americans might view him as a hero who had risked everything for his country, others would see him as a snitch who betrayed a sacred schoolyard-priestly-military code.

What organization more admires secret-keepers than the FBI?

Yet Felt in the 1970s was, according to Woodward and Bernstein in "All the President's Men," "an incurable gossip" who could "drink too much, overreach. He was not good at concealing his feelings." How could such a man for decades lie to his family, friends and closest colleagues? Felt's son, Mark Jr., says that before his father revealed his identity, Felt's attitude about rumors that he might be Deep Throat was that a person should "not leak information to anyone. "

Show me a man unconflicted about his secrets and I'll show you one who isn't thinking about them.

Nowhere is human conflictedness more on display than at a bar. Obinna Emenyonu, a college grad employed for three months at an Arlington bar and grill, was stunned to discover how quickly people in bars "open up to you."

"They have a drink, start to relax and before you know it, they're sharing all these things they wouldn't normally share," says Emenyonu, 26.

Ironically, he says, bars also are places where people naturally lie. "Married men come in whose wedding ring suddenly is not there," he muses. "It takes getting used to."

Ask Emenyonu why strangers tell him about their "relationships, sex lives and infidelities -- I don't get a lot of people talking about work" -- and he hesitates.

"It's no fun just keeping a secret to yourself," he suggests. "Alcohol and a laid-back atmosphere give people an avenue to vent."

It happens so often that Emenyonu is floating a new Deep Throat theory.

"It's quite possible that there's a bartender who serves [Felt] his Grey Goose on the rocks or whatever who knows all the details," he says.

"There might be a circle of bartenders who've known who Deep Throat was for years."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company