The Appreciation of Mark Felt
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Deep Throat's death comes as no shock to the nursing-home atmosphere that sometimes looms over American newspapering these days, where we tend to log on each morning and ask, while chewing soft food, who's dead now? (Or, who's been laid off? Who's stopped subscribing? Who's stopped delivering? Who's decided to close their Washington bureau?)
Follow the money?
He'd been identified three years before, anyway, ending this town's best parlor game. W. Mark Felt Sr. was the secret source who played an important and clandestine role in The Washington Post's investigation into the Watergate break-in and ensuing, primordial White House imbroglio of the 1970s. But he was more than that, to a certain skeptical spectrum of Americans. He was Deep Throat, ya know? Without a single byline he inspired thousands and thousands of campus misfits to get journalism degrees, each one of them in pursuit of bad haircuts, smoking habits and the next Deep Throat, the next huge story. Any "-gate" that followed or may yet follow feels incomplete without its own Deep Throat.
Felt had breakfast Thursday at his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., he took a nap and disappeared into the evermore. As we in the newspaper biz say, he took the buyout. Good for him, and thank you.
He was 95. Although he enjoyed relatively good health to the end, you could also say that the idea of him had died already, a few years ago, when he allowed the world to know who he was in a 2005 Vanity Fair magazine scoop that unveiled him as the anonymous source who used to meet Post reporter Bob Woodward in an Arlington parking garage. Knowing for certain who Deep Throat is (and Felt had always shown up on the short lists of likely guesses) took away the allure of not knowing. Washington culture had a lot invested in not knowing.
The identity of Deep Throat was the best-kept secret in the worst place to keep secrets. Plus, there was that fabulous, dirty nickname bestowed on him by the very nature of newsroom life and newsroom attitudes, straight from the long-gone porn theaters on Ninth Street. Never underestimate the symbolic role of the male member-ship in important journalism, to those who write and those who edit it and those who supply it.
Much was being said yesterday about Felt's patriotic duty to the Constitution, to ideals. Nothing in Felt's story indicates a profound love for the Fourth Estate. He was FBI. He didn't make a career of being a loose set of lips. This is a story about doing the right thing when the moment called for it. Thirty-six years after the Watergate break-in, Woodward and his former colleague Carl Bernstein visited Felt at the house where he lived with his daughter and grandson. They talked for a couple of hours. They had lived so long with the strangest sort of fame. Although he was in on the secret all those years, Bernstein had never met Deep Throat.
"Bob and I went out to San Francisco a few weeks ago; we had a speech out there," Bernstein told CNN's "American Morning" yesterday. "He knew we were coming; he was looking forward to it. But he had been very ill, and it was a kind of closing of the circle. . . . I was amazed at his relative vigor given the fact that he had been quite ill. I was also surprised that there were some moments of clarity, because he had dementia."
The host asked Bernstein whether he considered Felt "an American hero," as Felt's family claimed when their father and grandfather "came out" in May 2005. "Look," Bernstein said, "Watergate was a constitutional crisis in a criminal presidency. And he had the guts to say: 'Wait. The Constitution is more important in this situation than a president of the United States who breaks the law.' It's an important lesson, I think, for the country and for people in our business, as well."
Cue trumpet solo. But in the same breath, may this also be an appreciation of the newspaper itself, as a tactile and intellectual thing, still alive -- not only The Post, not only Woodward and Bernstein, but the swagger of it all?
Things have changed. Perhaps too much has changed. But not everything has changed. There was, after all, a line of people around the block at 15th and M streets in November, desperate to buy a copy of the newspaper after Election Day. True, they wanted it as a souvenir, as a thing to stow away in cardboard boxes in closets. The point being, they wanted it. They didn't want some tech-savvy kid in a hoodie and retro sneakers to come out to the steps of The Post building and cheerfully explain that they could bookmark posterity on their Web browsers. That way they could click on it any time they wanted, upload it to their future grandchildren, once it became part of their forever backup on the cloud server. They could do it right away on their iPhones. See? They could download a PDF and e-mail it to themselves, post it to their Wall! See? See? Cool, huh?
Cool is someone like Deep Throat, a small but crucial part of a story that changes the world. Cool is the idea that there are parking garages in the afterlife of Mark Felt, and in the next life of journalism. Cool is the thought that a young reporter right now, at any form of media outlet, is getting ready to actually leave the building and go meet someone in a neutral location for a story that may or may not pan out, something the reporter believes to be big.
There is, in the end, plenty of money begging to be followed, the money we don't know about and the money we do: stimulus money ($850 billion!); Madoff money ($50 billion!); automaker bailout money ($17 billion!).
The best way to appreciate Mark Felt is to work the phones, take notes and figure out how to get that which is off the record, on.