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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

In Defense of Deep Throat

The emerging conventional wisdom amongst the commentariat is a stern-toned shock that Deep Throat’s motives were unheroic. These, it seems, are the facts: Mark Felt (pictured, looking extremely groovy), the Assistant Director of the FBI in the early 1970s,…

  • June 1, 2005

The emerging conventional wisdom amongst the commentariat is a stern-toned shock that Deep Throat’s motives were unheroic. These, it seems, are the facts: Mark Felt (pictured, looking extremely groovy), the Assistant Director of the FBI in the early 1970s, was annoyed when Richard Nixon passed him over for Director when J. Edgar Hoover died; he detested Nixon personally; and he worried (correctly) that the President would politicize the Bureau. Timothy Noah is fairly typical of the CW, writing on Slate:

“Hoover loyalists at the bureau were frantic that President Richard Nixon would get his mitts on the FBI, which Hoover had kept independent of political control through a variety of nasty methods, including blackmail.”

On The News Hour, David Gergen, a political operative to multiple presidents, intoned in a low, lugubrious monotone:

“I just would caution that this was very much a cloak and dagger era in our political history, in which there were a lot of rough things going on, not only in the White House, as they were, but they were going on elsewhere in Washington and other agencies including J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.”

As so often, only Andrew Sullivan gets it about right.

To me, it is slightly ridiculous that any seasoned political commentator would be surprised that Felt’s motives in guiding Woodward and Berstein combined the high and the low. How could they not? Of course any source sufficiently senior to know the secrets behind Watergate would be playing his own political game. All good reporters know that their sources are up to no good, just as every good intelligence officer knows that even his bravest agents are vindictive traitors. What human act in this sublunary world does not mix avowable and shameful motives?

Acts must be judged by their consequences. Deep Throat’s leaks exposed the criminality of an arrogant administration, led to the imprisonment of some forty political crooks, and they prompted the resignation of a president whom John Updike once described as “a man of almost comically bad character.” You could add: Deep Throat exploded forever our misplaced trust in our political masters. Really, that’s good enough for me.

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