Reading Bob Woodward
In 'The Secret Man,' the Watergate Journalist Sheds Some Light -- on Himself

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 2005

It may well have been reported before, but it was certainly news to me that Bob Woodward once got so drunk he couldn't walk.

This was in 1970, in Virginia, at an officers' club party thrown by Navy colleagues to celebrate his upcoming discharge. "Martinis were about 90 cents, if that, and I believe I had maybe even six or seven," Woodward writes in his new book, "The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat." Dropped off at a Pentagon parking lot afterward, he began crawling toward his Volkswagen Beetle and was intercepted by sympathetic military police. Someone drove him home.

A good thing, too -- or the true history of Watergate might never have been told. But that's not why the anecdote is compelling.

It's because it hints at an inner Woodward we've never known.

"The Secret Man" is the closest thing to self-examination that Woodward -- who writes that he never drank that much again, and who went on to become the most celebrated journalist of his time -- has ever published. It isn't a full-fledged memoir. Instead, it is a narrative of his relationship with W. Mark Felt, the high-ranking FBI official who was recently revealed as Woodward's legendary Watergate source. But for anyone who has ever wondered what makes Woodward tick, it offers at least a road map for further analysis.

The author of "The Secret Man" has been my colleague for 20 years. (In addition to writing books, Woodward remains a Washington Post assistant managing editor.) But we don't really know each other, and I'm as curious as anyone else about the roots of his drive and the ingredients of his success.

How should one read Bob Woodward? What does his new quasi-memoir tell us about this complex, not particularly forthcoming man? An interview or profile in Woodward's own newspaper raises obvious questions about objectivity. But my editors decided that a look at this larger-than-life reporter through the lens of his own book was worth a try, because Woodward and his work are so closely woven into the fabric of Washington today.

In 1970, when he downed those martinis, he was an angst-ridden young man engaged in what he calls a "scramble for a future." Two years later, having decided on a journalism career, he and fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein were in hot pursuit of the "third-rate burglary" at the Democratic Party's national headquarters that would lead to President Nixon's resignation.

Since then, Woodward's aggressive reporting, knack for getting the powerful to talk and relentless effort -- even detractors acknowledge how hard he works -- have produced a flood of high-impact books and newspaper articles describing the pursuit and exercise of power. "The intimate and important struggles of government, the conflict and lethal bureaucratic maneuver warfare," as he puts it in "The Secret Man," have "become the Washington story as much as scandal."

In the years since Woodward's career began, reporting itself has increasingly become a form of power, a vehicle for large ambitions. The chief fascination of reading "The Secret Man" is to consider how the author's own life is bound up with the subject he has made his own.

Setting the Hook

Woodward's father, a judge in Illinois, wanted him to go to law school when he got out of the Navy. The son wasn't sure. While an undergraduate at Yale, he'd written a novel, though it "was neither promising nor publishable." Should he consider other options?

He took care to cultivate a college classmate who was to clerk for then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. He signed on for a course in international relations and promptly interviewed a former secretary of state. He was drawn to "the mystique of the White House," where his Navy duties sometimes took him as a courier, and he was delighted to hang around there when he could.

One day he ran into Mark Felt, who was waiting there as well.

The story of how he latched on to Felt, which Woodward also told in The Post when Felt's role as Deep Throat was made public by the source's family, is remarkably revealing. Woodward describes himself as "needy," full of "anxiety, even consternation" about his future. He describes the FBI man as having "a great, confident voice" and "a command presence." The older man "showed no interest in striking up a long conversation," but Woodward was "almost drooling" to have one.

So he did.

He established common ground with Felt (both had done graduate work at George Washington University; both had worked for congressmen). He shared his ambitions and asked for career advice. "I remember trying to probe by talking about myself," he writes -- noting that by the end of their encounter, "I had set the hook."

What he means is that he had connected with someone who could advise him about his future. But in hindsight it is obvious that he already possessed an essential attribute of the hard-driving reporter: the ability to quickly forge relationships with people who can help you.

Felt's first job out of law school had been with the Federal Trade Commission, a job he hated because the work was slow and bureaucratic. "Go with the action," he told Woodward. Not long afterward, Woodward decided to abandon the idea of law school, along with various other career possibilities, and try for a job at The Post.

He talked his way into a two-week tryout, failed it, took a $115-a-week job at the Montgomery County Sentinel and was told "you're crazy" by his father. By September 1971, he had worked his way back to this newspaper, where he put in so many extra hours that he drew both complaints from the union and approving notice from Post publisher-to-be Donald Graham.

On the morning of June 17, 1972, the city editor woke him up with a phone call. There'd been a peculiar little burglary at the Watergate, he said.

'Pushing Hard'

A few years ago, I interviewed Woodward for a magazine story on the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. The two are often portrayed as bitter rivals, but Woodward expressed appreciation for Hersh's accomplishments. "What Sy is, he's one of the shock troops," he said. "He's the one who goes in first." As such, "he is going to get bloodied."

He might as well have been talking about himself and Carl Bernstein in the early days of the Watergate story. They were in first; they were alone for a long time; and they got bloodied -- both by the Nixon administration and by fellow journalists who didn't believe their reporting.

They'd have been bloodied far more if Woodward hadn't set his hook in Felt two years before.

Deep Throat's side of the relationship -- the porn-movie nickname came from a Post editor -- is difficult to pin down. Woodward does his best to weigh his likely reasons for becoming a secret source, but because Felt has lost much of his memory in recent years, his true motivation may never be known.

Woodward's side, however, is laid out for the world to examine.

Felt "seemed like a man who dreaded my presence," Woodward writes of an early visit to his source's Virginia home. Concerned about the repercussions should he be discovered to have aided The Post, he set up the famously elaborate system under which they were to communicate: The need for a meeting was to be signaled by moved flower pots or marked newspapers; the meetings themselves were to be held late at night in a Rosslyn parking garage.

What's more, he said, he would not give Woodward new information: "The trick was to use him as a backstop or second source for information and conclusions gathered elsewhere."

To read "The Secret Man," however -- along with "All the President's Men," Woodward and Bernstein's mesmerizing 1974 book on their Watergate reporting -- is to notice that Woodward wasn't afraid to challenge Felt's rules. He telephoned Felt when he really needed to. And during his very first visit to the underground garage, at a point where his source had suddenly stopped talking, the reporter "grabbed his arm and said we were playing a degrading chickenshit game pretending that he was not passing original, new information to me."

"Okay," Felt said -- and gave him the new information he needed.

Without question, this was great reporting: It's not easy to be so aggressive without scaring off a source. And should one have qualms about applying this much pressure, Woodward has a justification at hand. Deep Throat himself had encouraged him to push harder.

"Felt said I shouldn't worry about pushing him," he writes. "The payoff for pushing hard was evident in his own career."

To read the two books is also to notice something else about Woodward. Though he couldn't have known it at the time, his future influence would come more from writing books than from daily reporting. In the white hot center of the still-breaking Watergate story, he was already laying the groundwork for this shift.

"All the President's Men" includes a remarkable passage in which he and Bernstein tell the tale of the worst reporting mistake they made. They had correctly named Nixon's powerful chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, as one of the people controlling a secret fund used to pay for the Watergate break-in. But they had misunderstood a source and attributed this information, in part, to grand jury testimony that didn't exist.

The source denied that he had testified about Haldeman -- and all hell broke loose. It could have been the end of the Watergate story, or at least the reporters' part in it. Nonetheless, Woodward and Bernstein -- who had stayed up most of the night working on a book proposal -- decided not to cancel their lunch with Simon & Schuster head Dick Snyder, "but to hurry through it instead."

In "The Secret Man" there is an even starker example of the tension between their Watergate reporting and their work on the book.

They'd signed a contract for $55,000 -- a larger sum then than it is today, though hardly a fortune. But the day-to-day story stayed so hot that a year later, they had almost nothing written. With their book deadline approaching, they decided to write what they knew best: not a conventional narrative of White House actions and reactions, but "the story of covering Watergate as Post reporters." Naturally, they wanted to include Woodward's secret source.

The agreement with Felt, Woodward writes, "was that there would be no identification of him, his agency or even a suggestion in print that such a source existed." This seems pretty unambiguous. Still, Woodward called Felt, who had recently retired, and asked "very gingerly" if he would consider letting his name be used.

"He exploded," Woodward writes. "Felt made me feel shame. I wondered how I could even have made such a request."

Felt's name wasn't used. But for the first time, his existence was publicly acknowledged.

"It never really crossed my mind," Woodward writes, "to leave out the details of Deep Throat's role."

Two Ambitious Men

It was a decision that would weigh on each of them for decades.

After Felt retired, he was caught up in an investigation of illegal FBI break-ins at the homes of friends and relatives of members of the Weather Underground. He wrote a memoir that almost no one read. He went on trial for the illegal activity and was convicted in November 1980, but was pardoned a few months later by President Reagan. He then disappeared from public life, except when his name was floated as a possible identity for Deep Throat.

As for Woodward, he drove himself as hard as ever in the years following Watergate, maintaining and even increasing his fame. From his base at The Post, he turned out news-driven, nonfiction books that made heavy use of anonymous sources: on the Supreme Court (with Scott Armstrong), on the CIA, on the Pentagon, on the Clinton and Bush White Houses. Woodward books are published to enormous fanfare, usually including an exclusive appearance on a television show such as "60 Minutes" and extensive excerpts in The Post. Most have risen straight to the top of national bestseller lists. According to his publisher, more than 7 million Woodward books are now in print.

Given the portrayal in "All the President's Men" and the way Woodward's world had diverged from Felt's, it's hardly surprising that the two men's relationship could not be sustained. It bothered Woodward nonetheless.

In the early days of their connection, he'd seen the older man as a kind of combination friend and father figure. Now, it wasn't clear that Felt wanted to know him at all. Woodward writes at some length about the pain this caused.

"All the President's Men" came out in the spring of 1974 and became a No. 1 bestseller. The proud co-author called Felt, "dying to know what he thought," but Felt hung up as soon as he heard his voice. Woodward found himself imagining the worst -- was Felt so depressed he might kill himself? -- but thought it more likely he'd "go public and denounce me as a betrayer and scum who had exploited our accidental friendship."

Nixon resigned later the same year. Woodward was afraid to call Felt, though "the nagging incompleteness of the relationship was painful for me."

The movie version of the book was released in 1976. Hal Holbrook played Deep Throat. Again, Woodward was tempted to call Felt, or to do one of his "show-up-on-his-doorstep routines." But "I was basically gutless. I did nothing."

He did call Felt after his indictment -- and again, after his conviction -- to express regret. The conversations were difficult. They were two ambitious men, forever linked yet headed in different directions, one up, one down.

For 18 years after Felt's 1981 pardon, they did not talk at all.

Meanwhile, the curious pursued the mystery that "All the President's Men" had created: Who was Deep Throat?

For Woodward, keeping Felt's secret was both an ethical obligation and a professional asset. Powerful people talked to him, in part, because he'd proved he could keep his sources to himself. "This is a 'Deep Throat' conversation," he'd sometimes say. He lived in fear that Felt's name would come out.

Then-Assistant Attorney General Stanley Pottinger took him to lunch one day and told him he knew Deep Throat was Felt from observing his testimony in a grand jury proceeding. "I was jumping out of my skin but trying to keep a poker face," Woodward writes. He refused to confirm Pottinger's deduction. Pottinger kept the secret because he didn't believe anonymous sources should be revealed.

Post columnist Richard Cohen guessed Deep Throat was Felt and said he was going to write a column saying so. Woodward lied to him to head him off.

James Mann, a former Post reporter and friend of Woodward's, wrote a smart piece for the Atlantic concluding that Deep Throat had to have been from the FBI -- in part, he said, because he'd heard Woodward speak in 1972 about having a source there.

Woodward told Mann he didn't think he'd been so careless, but even if he had, it wasn't right for Mann to reveal those conversations. The friendship cooled.

When former White House counsel Leonard Garment wrote a book that fingered Nixon staffer John Sears, Woodward shot down the theory. Not long after that, with the pool of possible Deep Throats shrinking, he adopted a policy of not commenting at all.

'I Used Mark Felt'

The endgame began with an article in the Hartford Courant, in 1999. Felt was quoted. "No, it's not me," he said. Woodward saw the piece and decided he should get in touch.

Still, he procrastinated. In January 2000 he finally phoned Felt in Santa Rosa, Calif., where he lived with his daughter, Joan. After identifying himself, he told Felt that he would be taping the call.

In the conversation that ensued -- and the ones that occurred when Woodward followed up by traveling to Santa Rosa -- Felt was sometimes lucid, sometimes not. Readers with elderly friends or relatives will understand. Woodward sounds calculating at times, focused on his own interests. More often, he seems uncertain what to do, and genuinely moved.

He was relieved to be welcomed as a friend again -- even by a man whose memory was largely gone.

A couple of years after his California trip, he got calls from Felt's son and the family's lawyer. Felt had told them he was Deep Throat, they said. Woodward consulted his wife, his own lawyer and Ben Bradlee, his old editor at The Post, who'd also kept the secret all those years. He concluded that Felt was in no shape to release him from his pledge of confidentiality, no matter what he'd told his family.

This meant he couldn't even confirm to Joan Felt that her father was Deep Throat. As they talked, he told her she shouldn't try to "read" him on the subject.

It's an amazing piece of advice, coming from a man who deconstructs his sources' words for a living. But Woodward has worked hard to be straightforward in "The Secret Man," even when he looks bad doing it. "The portrait of me is not all that admirable," he writes near the end of the book. "I was pushy, secretive; I used Mark Felt. . . . But I wanted this account to be the antidote to Watergate, which had always been so convoluted, things always being concealed."

He's tried. But we're going to have to wait for an insightful Woodward biographer to understand the secret man that he himself remains. And that biographer, when the time comes, might want to remember Deep Throat's advice:

There's always a payoff for pushing hard.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company