'Deep Throat' and imperial presidencies

News Commentary

The revelation that FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt was the mysterious figure known as “Deep Throat” has led to renewed interest in the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon’s administration. At the same time, political pundits who have been called upon for commentary have predictably failed to draw the connection between Nixon’s administration and that of our current president.

Watergate was, together with the war in Vietnam, a seminal event in American history during the latter part of the 20th century. Yet, according to a recent poll, 24 percent of Americans polled expressed a complete unfamiliarity with the break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in June of 1972.

Felt’s public admission that he was “Deep Throat,” a name coined by managers at the Washington Post to describe reporter Bob Woodward’s “deep background” source, provides an answer to a question that has intrigued political scientists, journalists, and historians for the past three decades.

As this is written, the repercussions of Felt’s disclosure are only beginning to be felt. What seems highly possible is that Felt’s motives were a mixture of bruised ego for being passed over for the FBI’s directorship in favor of the soon-to-be-disgraced L. Patrick Gray, and some sense that the FBI had to save itself from the Nixon administration. The latter, in particular, holds interest for those of the left who have always said the FBI was more than “the investigative division of the US Department of Justice.” If Felt’s alleged motivations are true, it brought down a president to protect the power and influence of the FBI.

One of the elements of the television commentary that would be comic were it not tragic is seeing G. Gordon Liddy, Patrick Buchanan and Charles Colson – none of whom were paragons of virtue in the Watergate saga to say the least, complain that Felt acted in a dishonorable manner by talking to Washington Post reporter Woodward. They suggest, in fact, that Felt should have gone to acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray, a man whose nomination was sunk during the confirmation process after he admitted having destroyed key documents in the Watergate investigation at the request of the White House. Even had Felt done so, that information would have been given to the Attorney General, John Mitchell, who history discloses had a key role in approving the break-in and electronic surveillance of the Democratic National Committee.

Felt is hardly a hero. As the FBI’s deputy director he was surely aware of the abuses of that agency and their sordid activities against the civil rights movement and the left, including the infamous COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) which involved illegal break-ins, surveillance and harassment.

Significantly, none of the media outlets have mentioned the “imperial presidency” ambitions of Richard Nixon, of which Watergate was a part. It would seem that President George W. Bush has similar ambitions. Both Nixon and Bush have as an underlying philosophy that the interests of national security justify the action. For Nixon, this involved establishing a covert White House intelligence operation, known as “The Plumbers.” For Bush, it involves the disenfranchisement of millions of voters; the effort to end filibusters; the PATRIOT act; a military incursion in Iraq that violates international law; and a concerted effort to insure an increasingly politicized judiciary among other initiatives. Meanwhile, the president’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is being increasingly discussed in GOP circles as a potential presidential nominee for 2008 as a way to continue the “Bush dynasty.”

Nixon’s aspirations for an imperial presidency may have brought him down, but it may not be too much to suggest that our current president has similar dreams, and has learned well the lessons of Watergate.