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They’re all Deep Throats now

What made the Watergate mole decide to come clean?

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

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We now know that W Mark Felt, the second in command at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during the Nixon administration, was ‘Deep Throat’, the infamous Watergate mole who brought down a president and all of his men.

Apparently, Felt, a longtime civil servant, had been personally unhappy that Nixon chose a political appointee instead of Felt as the replacement for J Edgar Hoover as FBI chief. Felt had also been politically worried about the impact Nixon was having on the stability and integrity of government institutions. He therefore helped Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ‘follow the money’ all the way to President Nixon himself, exposing his involvement in the 1972 Watergate affair.

Felt’s motivations for exposing Nixon are less interesting than his reasons for keeping his identity a secret for decades, and his sudden willingness to reveal it now. He was originally worried that the revelation of his identity would disgrace his family. Such disloyalty from a high-ranking civil servant and party member was at that time unheard of. It was destabilising to an administration dealing with social unrest and fighting a major war; it played into the hands of the enemy. Yet in the intervening 30 years, there has been a profound change in American political culture, and in the mores of the ruling class.

Far from being figures of approbation, whistleblowers are now idolised as men of conscience. At the recent announcement of Deep Throat’s identity, Felt’s grandson said: ‘As [Felt] recently told my mother, “I guess people used to think Deep Throat was a criminal, but now they think he’s a hero”.’ (1) Whistleblowers are imagined as the bewildered embodiments of good against overweening forces of evil. These contemporary idols seek to spare their family the risks that come with dissent, but are too idealistic to give up their struggle against the corrupt and manipulative machinations of powerful institutions.

Recent examples are legion – from government and intelligence, there was Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson and the much victimised Valerie Plame, Colleen Rowley (now considering parlaying her moral authority into a Congressional bid) (2), and from the corporate world, anti-tobacco hero Jeffrey Wigand (memorialised by Russell Crowe in the Michael Mann movie The Insider). What made the Deep Throat story so thrilling was that the whole world was against him and that he operated in a society that disapproved of disloyalty. This is not the case today. Tell-all exposés have become almost banal, failing to shock public expectations.

In fact, whistleblowers are not really heroic figures that threaten to bring down entire administrations. They are merely one of the ways in which an increasingly fractious ruling class airs its dirty laundry in public, using the media as a stage upon which to act out petty internal squabbles. While liberals eagerly championed those among the administration who opposed the Iraq war, revealed lies, and undermined Bush’s prosecution of the war on terror, this was in part to cover up their own lack of a coherent political agenda. Looking to Deep Throats as sources of political inspiration is a bit like asking for divine intervention. It speaks of a desperate hope that someone else will do your dirty work, and it suggests an inability to distinguish between moral discrediting and serious political challenge.

Moreover, the Deep Throat mystique rests on a revisionist history. Deep Throat did not single-handedly bring down the Nixon administration. Woodward cautioned yesterday that ‘Felt’s role in all this can be overstated’ – there were many more sources and other ways of getting information (3). More to the point, Felt’s dissent reflected at the highest point a political battle being fought at all levels of society – which was shown by widespread anti-war protests, civil rights marches and labour strikes. The ruling class had become seriously divided, with many of its children leading social movements against everything their parents stood for, especially around the Vietnam War.

Amid the general political fervour, Felt was if anything the most conservative of the many forces coalescing to bring down Nixon. After all, he was concerned that Nixon’s paranoid and erratic leadership might be threatening the status quo. As for the present, we need only look at the relatively inconsequential efforts of Joseph Wilson and Richard Clarke to see how ineffective a few whistleblowers are, on their own, when it comes to political influence. As isolated individuals, they do not make history. They take personal risks, but political risks are taken collectively.

In fact, it is questionable whether whistleblowers do really have a positive impact on politics. At present, each new revelation seems only to confirm an abiding cynicism about politics and social institutions generally. The legacy of Deep Throat and the Nixon administration that made him possible, is that everything can be understood in terms of some kind of conspiracy, in which shadowy figures pull strings and manipulate people, occasionally foiled by the rare man of integrity. The central figures of that period – Nixon and Kissinger especially – stand as representatives of politics as duplicitous power grubbing.

The willingness of the ruling class now to embrace Felt and subsequent generations of whistleblowers reflects the degree to which the establishment accepts and promotes anti-political cynicism. There is nothing more popular than being anti-government and running ‘against Washington’. But this is not a critical stance. It is a sign of how the initial crisis of the ruling class, of which Felt was a part, is now a full-blown retreat from responsibility and leadership. It also suggests that we should not wait for governments to self-destruct. That is an endless and uninspiring process.

Felt was far more interesting as Deep Throat, the chain-smoking, slightly disturbing man of mystery, rather than as the folk hero seized by a moment of conscience. He works best as an artistic figure, not as a source of political inspiration.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.

(1) ‘Deep Throat’ Unmasks Himself as Ex-No. 2 Official at F.B.I., New York Times, 1 June 2005

(2) Ex-FBI Whistle-Blower Mulls Congress Bid, Yahoo News, 24 May 2005

(3) FBI’s No. 2 Was ‘Deep Throat’, Washington Post, 1 June 2005

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Topics Politics

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