Best we could tell, there was a dinner last night at the Georgetown Club to honor John Mitchell, the Nixon confidant and U.S. attorney general who served 18 months in prison for Watergate-related crimes and died in 1988. Best we could tell, this is an annual event whose timing was purely coincidental to the revelation this week that Deep Throat is in fact W. Mark Felt, the former No. 2 official at the FBI.
The gathering is, at the very least, a private affair. The Georgetown Club said no event having anything to do with Mitchell was scheduled yesterday. Former White House counsel Leonard Garment, reached in New York, said he wasn't aware of it. In California, former Nixon counsel John Dean was on one phone line doing an interview while his wife, Mo, said neither of them had heard of or been invited to the soiree. A representative for Chuck Colson at Prison Fellowship Ministries didn't know about any dinner and said Colson would not be among the guests.
Yet about three dozen men -- several identifying themselves as Nixon or Mitchell friends, fans or former aides -- filed into the Wisconsin Avenue club for a cocktail reception. Dinner followed. Few would say anything about where they were headed, let alone discuss this week's revelation that Felt was The Washington Post's iconic Watergate source.
"I better not say anything," former House minority leader Bob Michel said with a smile as he got out of a limo. So he didn't.
"I don't envy this assignment you have," said Republican operative Lyn Nofziger, who worked for Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972.
The assignment was to sample reaction among Nixon loyalists to the Deep Throat story. Or, as Nofziger called it, "a vastly overblown story that most people don't care about." That included most people at last night's "gathering of old friends," Nofziger said, waiting for a valet to retrieve his car.
Several guests rushed past us, a few shaking their heads or chuckling with some disdain. "You're not going to find many fans here," said one man, referring to Felt. He declined to identify himself, perhaps in subtle tribute to Felt. Or, more likely, not.
Another source, speaking on "deep background," disclosed that the dinner consisted of steak, french fries, salad, peas and ice cream (with strawberries). Robert Odle, director of administration for Nixon's reelection campaign, declined to confirm any food-related details. But he was happy to share how he felt about Felt.
"I can't believe that an FBI official of that level would be spending his time in underground garages in Rosslyn," said Odle, who also served in the Reagan administration. "And watching flowerpots and putting marks in someone's New York Times." Odle meant, of course, Felt's encoded methods of setting up meetings with Bob Woodward. Odle said Woodward and Carl Bernstein were "basically working as secretaries" for Mark Felt.
At one point, a Post reporter briefly entered the club, but was quickly turned away by a man at the door. No hard feelings, he said.
It is agreed that everyone is just doing his job.
By 10 p.m., the gathering was breaking up. Aging and aged men with American flag and elephant pins, some smoking cigars, stood outside in a misting rain, waiting for cars and limos. They waxed fondly on Nixon and Mitchell, not so fondly about the very old man of the hour.
"That son of a bitch did everything he could to stop reform at the bureau after Hoover died," said Jerris Leonard, a Justice Department official during Nixon's first term. He referred to Felt simply as "NG."
"That stands for no good," Leonard explained, solving yet another mystery.
Staff writer Roxanne Roberts contributed to this report.