He's a confused old man now with a prosaic name, but he will live forever in American history as Deep Throat. The real W. Mark Felt, the FBI bureaucrat unveiled by Vanity Fair last week as the country's most famous anonymous source, will always be obscured by that mythic shadowman who whispered secrets in an underground garage to a young Washington Post reporter, damning the Nixon presidency to its eventual demise.
In the public memory, Watergate is generally summed up like this: the Post and its inseparable reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down President Richard Nixon by unraveling the Administration's cover-up of political espionage in a thrilling journalistic chase led by the spectral figure known as Deep Throat.
But if the secret of his identity, held fast by four men for 33 years, is no more, there is still mystery in the nature and meaning of his role in Watergate. Was Deep Throat a villain or a hero, driven by base motives or noble ones? And was he in fact the central player he has become in our minds?
Felt's revelation stunned Washington, including (and perhaps especially) the three other men who had protected his secret for so long. For years, the Post reporters and their boss, Ben Bradlee, who was executive editor of the Post during the Watergate era, had vowed never to expose Felt before his death, and Woodward and Bernstein argued against confirming his identity even after the Vanity Fair story came out. But all three realized Felt had voided their honorably kept pledge to protect him, and his admission effectively backed up their long-standing contention that Deep Throat was neither fiction nor a composite. Bradlee says he never asked for Deep Throat's name until after Nixon had resigned. But he steadily supported his young investigators through months of intense pressure, he tells TIME, on the basis of the knowledge that "it was a highly placed law-enforcement official, and I presumed that he was in the Justice Department"and the fact that "never once was any information he was responsible for wrong." Yet in retrospect, he adds, "if I did this again, I probably would insist on knowing who the hell it was earlier."
Even now, there are a handful of people, especially among Nixon loyalists convinced the President was wrongfully hounded from power by a vengeful press, who refuse to accept that Felt and Deep Throat are one and the same. "I thought Deep Throat was essentially a composite character" folding in a number of informers, "and I still think it is," says G. Gordon Liddy, the tough-guy White House operative who went to jail for, among other dirty tricks, helping to plan the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington by five men who were caught in the act, carrying eavesdropping equipment. Less partisan players share his theory. David Obst, the agent for Woodward and Bernstein's best seller about Watergate, All the President's Men, told TIME, "There was no Deep Throat. I'm sorry. It was a construct put together to give the book and the movie a dramatic tale" after the authors' first draft of a public-affairs book "didn't work out."
"Total b________," replies Bernstein. It's true the first draft of the book didn't have Deep Throat in it, he says, but it didn't have Woodward and Bernstein either, and that doesn't make them inventions.
Scott Armstrong, a former Senate Watergate committee investigator and onetime Woodward collaborator on The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court, thinks Deep Throat's role was somewhat distorted by the high drama of shadowy garage encounters with Woodward that were featured in the book's movie version, in which the journalist is played by Robert Redford. Says Armstrong: "Bob gave Redford some s___ once about pulling Deep Throat out of context." Armstrong also notes that Woodward and Bernstein had lots of equally important sources for their stories. "Before this week," he says, "there were at least 10 people in Washington who would have passed polygraphs saying they were the real Deep Throat."