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A combination of patriot and turncoat, Hoover loyalist and truth teller, Felt never achieved his long-cherished dream of becoming FBI director. But for a crucial year in his life and the country's life, he was at the vortex of the greatest political scandal in modern American history.
It all began with the death of J. Edgar Hoover.
"I have strong ideas about this damn funeral," Nixon told his aides on the morning of May 2, 1972, on hearing of Hoover's death at the age of 77. "I want it to be big."
A lying-in-state on Capitol Hill. A presidential eulogy. A Marine band. Taps. Nixon made sure that Hoover received all the honors that America could bestow on a fallen hero. In his mind, this was not just a funeral for Hoover, it was a heaven-sent opportunity to reassert presidential authority over an agency that was "out of control."
Nixon praised Hoover in public. But in private, he referred to the FBI director as "a morally depraved son of a bitch," declassified White House tapes show.
The man chosen by Nixon for "cleaning house" at the FBI was a former World War II submarine commander named L. Patrick Gray III, a longtime political loyalist who had held a succession of positions at the Justice Department. Nixon's one concern about Gray was that he was "a little naïve."
Gray was soon reporting back about the internal power struggles that were taking place within the FBI. The upper ranks of the bureau were a hive of gossip and intrigue, in his opinion. "Those people over there are like little old ladies in tennis shoes and they've got some of the most vicious vendettas going on," Gray told Nixon in amazement.
The one senior FBI man trusted implicitly by Gray was his deputy, Felt. Smooth and debonair, with an extraordinary command of detail, Felt had been involved in counterespionage operations in World War II, and had run the FBI field office in Kansas City, a hotbed of political corruption. Hoover had plucked Felt out of the bureau's internal inspection division in 1971 and made him his heir apparent.
Declassified FBI and White House documents show that Felt praised Gray for his "magnificent" performance at a meet-and-greet session with the FBI's executive committee. He later sent Gray surveys of laudatory comments from FBI field offices such as "morale outstanding, never higher," and "99 per cent of agents highly disposed toward innovative changes made by Mr Gray."
Felt's private view of Gray was very different. In his autobiography, he makes no secret of his disappointment about not getting the top job, which, he thought, should have gone to a career FBI man. He refers to his boss as "three-day Gray," because of his "constant absence from his command post in Washington," visiting FBI offices around the country or spending long weekends at his home in Connecticut.
Like most senior FBI officials, Felt strongly opposed Gray's decision to recruit female agents to what had been an exclusively male preserve.
Gray's frequent absences meant that his deputy was effectively running the bureau when police apprehended five burglars in the Democratic Party's national campaign office at the Watergate complex at 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1972.
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