So there is yet another book about the Watergate break-in, cover-up, and leak of same. Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, by Max Holland, hit the shelves last March. In it he explores the intriguing question of the title: Why does a high-level official — No. 2 at the FBI, in fact — set out to destroy a president?
I haven’t read the book, I’ll admit, but the premise of the book matches with what came out several years ago when Felt was finally outed as Deep Throat, Woodward’s and Bernstein’s anonymous source. More to the point, it seems that Felt, so far from being some sort of quasi-mole for civil rights within the FBI, courageously sacrificing all to put a stop to a presidential administration gone rogue at the very highest levels, was actually an ambition-soaked bureaucrat looking to advance his own career and destroy those of his competitors. In other words, just a human like everyone else. The nasty monkey-shines he exposed — break-ins, unauthorized wiretaps, and the like — were in fact nothing more than what he’d personally green-lighted himself in other cases. Destroying a president and grievously wounding the presidency itself was just collateral damage for Mark Felt.
What interests me more than the question of why Felt did it is the little matter of how Woodward and Bernstein fit into Felt’s plans. In plain English, they got used in an attempted palace coup. Did they know they were being used? It’s hard to think they wouldn’t have. You can’t work as a reporter in Washington for any length of time and not understand that nothing at all is entirely what it seems.
Generations of would-be “journalists” have grown up since the 1970s, and for them W & B have been lodestars. Everyone is looking for the next Watergate story, every source is to be the next Deep Throat. The image of the crusading journalist bringing down not just the high and the mighty — by, say, exposing a corrupt paving contract down at the street department — but crashing the highest and the mightiest in the world, is part of the mental landscape which today’s journalists carry with them. The Fourth Estate is to be the guardian of all our liberties, reining in the megalomaniacal entrenched power elites, and so forth and so on. Those are the stars which today’s budding J-schoolers bring with them in their eyes.
What if that’s not how it is at all? What if reporters willingly make themselves tools of power factions? What if they’re nothing more morally exalted than the same tribe who set up a flagrantly partisan — and almost comically fact-divorced — press from the days of Jefferson’s war against Adams, or Jackson’s wars against his sundry opponents? What if the “truth” they peddle is no more than what is deigned to be shared with them by the hand of the chess-master who is moving them about a board, his board? What if, in other words, the press has become no more than rent-seekers, attempting to glean a living — and power and influence to go with it — from the chips that fall when the powerful clash?
Yes, there was a “story” in what Mark Felt had to tell Woodward and Bernstein. But it was a “story” that was, in all truth, about as penny-ante as they get. A politician’s aides had a shadowy group of operatives try to get the dirt on his opponents. They decided to accomplish this by breaking in to someone’s office and sifting through files. Woo-hoo!! And it’s not like the fruits of the break-in did or would have influenced the drubbing that Nixon administered to McGovern in 1972 in any event. There was no way, unless Nixon had been caught with the live boy or dead girl of the proverbs, that we would ever have had a President McGovern. Or to put it in context, Harry Truman (as related in David McCullough’s biography) was petrified that someone would insinuate a female into his presence and then a photographer would pop out from behind a potted plant to snap a picture to wreck Truman. And in fact on at least one occasion related in the book it appears that such very nearly happened. That was how politics was practiced at that level. In other words, the Watergate break-in, and even the subsequent cover-up, just weren’t in and of themselves big stories. They were made Big Stories in a collaborative effort by two reporters and an ambitious careerist, working together in the fertile soil of one of the most cordially despised politicians (even before he got caught up in it) in American history.
The fact is that dragging out into broad daylight what high-stakes politicians have doubtless been engaged in since time immemorial (it was scarcely precedent-setting when that boob went sifting through Sarah Palin’s garbage and rented a house looking over into the family’s back yard) has forever damaged the institution of the American presidency. Everyone who has been hopelessly smitten with love must know that, as a purely physiological proposition, there are some things which the Adored must periodically attend to. We don’t need, in other words, Jonathan Swift to remind us that Celia shits. Woodward and Bernstein rubbed our collective noses in that fact, though, and they did it as the subservient creatures of Mark Felt.
The recent devolution of the American press into a more-or-less open cheerleading section for a particular faction of a specific party is all of a piece with the history of Woodward, Bernstein, and Felt. And it’s not just domestic coverage (or increasingly, non-coverage), either. It’s things like CNN admitting — after the fact, of course — that it went soft on Saddam Hussein in order not to jeopardize its “access” to his murderous regime. The present White House now demands review and approval authority for quotations. And today’s press meekly grants it. JournoList gets together behind the scenes and coordinates what will and will not be covered, and how the stories that are covered will be. The modern news industry is quite simply thoroughly corrupt, whether out of ideological grounds or the simple desire for fame, wealth, and power.
Whenever the point is made of the corruption of the modern press, the Watergate Story is trotted out as the Reason We Need a Free Press. That’s the narrative. A couple of intrepid reporters stand athwart the path of the government juggernaut. That’s why we need to await breathlessly the next Film at 11 from whatever talking head flickers across our screens. That’s why we need to wade through the 75% of the NYT that’s advertising. That’s why we ought not make up our minds until we’ve been told how to make them up. Remember Watergate!
Except it turns out the narrative is bogus.