Revealed: Who Wasn't Deep Throat

All the Bureaucracy's Men

By James Mann
Sunday, June 5, 2005

The unmasking of former FBI official W. Mark Felt as "Deep Throat" has given the country a rare glimpse into the two separate spheres that coexist uneasily within the U.S. government. Let's call one of them Hidden World and the other Talk Show World.

It's impossible to understand how things work in Washington without considering these two contrasting worlds and the inherent, unending struggle between them. Bob Woodward grasped the difference between them more than three decades ago. The many people who guessed wrong about Deep Throat's identity failed to understand it; they usually overestimated the role and power of Talk Show World.

When I refer to Talk Show World, I don't mean merely the people on the Sunday gabfests. In fact, there weren't too many talk shows in the early 1970s. Rather, I'm using the phrase to refer to all those prominent individuals who appear on television, or write articles and books, or go off on the lecture circuit to discuss what's going on inside the U.S. government or whatever administration is currently in power.

Often, it is the same identifiable faces, over and over again; after all (or so the logic goes) if someone is unknown, he or she must not be very important or must not have anything important to say.

Most Americans mistakenly presume that their government is run by Talk Show World -- even though, in reality, the denizens of this universe may have no power at all and may have no more than a limited connection to the inner workings of government.

To take just one random example: Ari Fleischer, the former spokesman for the current Bush administration, is a classic Talk Show type. Even out of government, his face is recognizable today. Yet while he was in government, he wasn't at the table for key decisions and, I suspect, didn't know very much.

Or take David Gergen, another classic Talk Show figure, who has served in high positions for both Republican and Democratic administrations. Gergen may be a knowledgeable specialist on perceptions or public relations -- but he wasn't a decision maker. Reporters who rely upon someone like Fleischer or Gergen as a source tend to learn only what a particular administration wants the press to know.

Mark Felt was a classic representative of that other sphere, Hidden World. It comprises bureaucracies and institutions through which the United States must operate day in and day out -- the FBI, the CIA, the armed forces. Hidden World is by its very nature faceless, but also permanent. Administrations come and go; the big organizations remain. Usually, Hidden World follows directives, but sometimes it balks, subverts and undermines. (Well before the Watergate break-in, Felt didn't like what the Nixon administration was asking the FBI to do.) Political leaders may despise Hidden World, but they often have no choice but to work with and through it. American presidents and political parties don't have their own people on 24-hour call in Jakarta or Dubuque; the CIA and FBI do.

Woodward had at the very start of his reporting career a superb (if intuitive) grasp of Hidden World. He had served in the Navy in Washington; by his own account in The Post last Thursday, his military duties involved errands at the White House. That's where, in a chance encounter, he met Felt.

Too many other reporters fall into the trap of believing in the centrality of Talk Show World. Since the 1970s, the endless speculation about the identity of Deep Throat repeatedly and cluelessly focused on famous faces from the Nixon era, such as Gergen, political strategist John Sears, presidential speechwriter Pat Buchanan, Republican National Committee chairman George H.W. Bush, White House press aide Diane Sawyer -- all people who had little or no access to the hidden law-enforcement and investigative information Deep Throat was providing. Even Alexander Haig, who in 1972 was a senior aide to national security adviser Henry Kissinger and later the subject of some Deep Throat speculation, didn't have that sort of information. (Haig was plugged into Hidden World, but in this case it was the wrong bureaucracy -- national security, not law enforcement.)

Even after Felt and his family came forward last week, some journalists seemed to cling to their old illusions that the faces they already knew are the most important ones. How could Deep Throat have known anything if he wasn't a regular at the Gridiron Club? Columnist Robert D. Novak, himself a Talk Show habitue, wrote last week of the "general feeling inside Washington" that Deep Throat had to be someone "closer to the scandal than a senior FBI bureaucrat." People like Haig or Gergen "would seem more dramatic" than Felt, asserted Novak.

Yet it is the humdrum, almost boring quality of Felt and others in Hidden World that defines their essence and their significance. To them, the institution counts more than individual flair or fame. That's the point I was trying to make in a 1992 Atlantic Monthly article (which mentioned Felt as one of a couple of Deep Throat candidates). The article said that Deep Throat's identity wasn't nearly as important as where he worked, namely the FBI.

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