Mark Felt as a Washington Henry Hill
Following his recent death, pundits were lining up to sing the praises of Mark “Deep Throat” Felt and his role in the downfall of Richard M. Nixon and the Watergate Plumbers Local 107. This weekend I found myself reading a decidedly-different perspective on Felt’s life and times in Clarice Feldman’s column, “Deep Throat: Too Late the Hero.” Feldman brushes straight past the Hollywood figure, depicted as a trench coat and fedora-adorned Captain America, out to save the Future of the Union from Corruption and Abuse, focusing instead on Felt’s own rather warty professional past.
Besides sage words about being wary of the motives of government employees bearing tales of corruption to the press, Narciso’s words constitute as complete an epitaph of Mark Felt as I can summon.
Felt has been lionized in the media for his revealed role as “Deep Throat” in the Watergate scandal. But he also has a history that shows him to be less than deserving of those accolades.
She focuses on three principal talking points:
1. He Conducted Illegal or at Least Dubious Surveillance Against the Weathermen
2. He Faulted Nixon for the Same Tactics
3. He Undermined His Agency and Ultimately Almost Ended Up in Jail
Reading the entire column will provide the reader with a more thorough background, but the short version can be laid out here. Felt apparently engaged in a number of so called “black bag” operations against the Weather Underground, conducting raids and surveillance without obtaining a warrant. He was later charged with conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens and eventually went on trial. Unaware that Felt was the agent of his downfall, President Nixon and many of his fellows actually contributed to his defense fund and sought to see him exonerated. In the end, they helped ensure a pardon for Felt under the Regan administration. Though all of this, Felt remained silent about his own activities in bringing down Nixon and accepted his help in securing his own freedom and prosperity.
This is, to be sure, a very different look at Felt’s life than the one we normally see through the eyes of Woodward and Bernstein. If there is any point where I would take issue with Feldman’s portrayal, it is in the subtle implication that Felt’s acts comprised a “betrayal” of Nixon. We could say with equal confidence that Henry “Goodfellas” Hill and Sammy the Bull Gravano engaged in a betrayal of far greater magnitude and at higher risk. Did this somehow suddenly transfigure them into men of admirable character? It did not. But it is still worth noting that their actions resulted in the prosecution and conviction of numerous people engaged in murder, extortion and racketeering, so they did make a positive contribution to the greater good. Felt, likewise, accomplished something positive in spite of his own personal failures and shortcomings.
There were many positive aspects to the Nixon administration – facts which only later came to light through investigation by the cooler heads of presidential historians. The President was handed a horrible situation in Viet Nam and it can be argued that he resolved it in the only manner available to him. His work in foreign diplomacy, most notably China among others, was admirable. While his relations with the Russians got off to a rocky start, he later managed the situation through the SALT talks and other channels with great aplomb. None of this, however, means that the failures of government in the Watergate affair should not have been brought to light.