If Bob Woodward were in journalism school, his professor might have handed back his new book, "The Secret Man," as incomplete...
“The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat”
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 232 pp., $23
If Bob Woodward were in journalism school, his professor might have handed back his new book, “The Secret Man,” as incomplete.
Who, what, where, when, why and how: These are the questions all journalists are taught to answer before they are set loose on the streets.
In this intermittently engaging but ultimately slight memoir, Woodward answers the what, where, when, how and, above all, the who of his dealings with W. Mark Felt, the senior FBI official finally revealed this May as the celebrated “Deep Throat” in the Watergate investigation.
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But Woodward fails to answer the most important question remaining after Felt unveiled his identity in a Vanity Fair story: Why? Why did a career FBI agent who had ascended to the second-ranking position in the bureau, and who didn’t think much of the media, leak such critical information about the scandal to Woodward?
Woodward offers some plausible theories but mostly acknowledges that he didn’t really press Felt to answer the question until meetings with him in 2000 and 2002, when the older man’s memory had already crumbled and he could barely recall even working at the FBI, much less his post-midnight encounters with Woodward in a suburban parking garage.
“I am disappointed and a little angry at both myself and him for never digging out a more exacting explanation, a clearer statement of his reasoning and motivation,” Woodward writes, in a judgment readers are likely to share.
Arriving with great fanfare, this book proves only a minor footnote to history. It checks in at just 232 pages (including a brief afterword by Carl Bernstein, Woodward’s collaborator in the original investigation at The Washington Post), but even so, feels padded.
It lacks the energy and freshness of “All the President’s Men,” the 1974 book on the Watergate investigation that rocketed the two reporters to stardom and inspired the iconic movie in which Hal Holbrook memorably portrayed Deep Throat.
As Woodward has become a publishing brand name, the one thing he’s guaranteed his readers is blockbuster behind-the-scenes revelations.
But with Felt’s identity already disclosed, what’s left is little more than new shadings on the margins of a familiar picture.
Still, the book has its occasional charms. Its best moments, not surprisingly, come in Woodward’s recounting of his productive but often prickly relationship with Felt in the early 1970s.
Woodward writes that he met Felt either late in 1969 or early in 1970. Delivering papers to the White House as a Navy lieutenant, Woodward found himself waiting on a chair next to Felt, who was also there for an appointment.
Woodward peppered Felt for career advice and kept in touch through the years, especially after he left the Navy, switched to journalism and joined the Post.
Felt provided Woodward tips on some other stories, so it was natural the reporter turned to him in the early days of the scandal, which began June 17, 1972, with the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office complex and ended with the resignation of President Nixon on Aug. 9, 1974.
Felt offered some guidance but quickly grew concerned the White House would identify him as a Post source.
The book’s most engaging sections recount the elaborate precautions Felt, who had done a stint as a counterespionage officer early in his career, insisted upon for their subsequent rendezvous in a suburban parking garage.
Woodward recalls Felt’s instructions: “Take the alley. Don’t use your own car. Take a taxicab to a point several blocks from a hotel where there are cabs after midnight. Get dropped off and then walk to get a second cab to Rosslyn. Don’t get dropped off directly at the parking garage. Walk the last several blocks … .”
There’s an appealing cloak-and-dagger edginess to these accounts. But even this section of the book is uneven. Woodward doesn’t explain how much information he provided about his source to others at the Post or how his colleagues and bosses reacted to relying so heavily on an anonymous informant for so many high-risk stories.
The book’s bigger problem is that it runs out of story very quickly. Felt, after twice being passed over for the top job at the FBI, retired in June 1973.
After that, Woodward had little contact with him for more than a quarter-century (except for a bizarre interlude when the Post assigned Woodward to interview Felt about his indictment for authorizing Watergate-style break-ins against the radical antiwar Weather Underground).
Woodward fills pages by reporting on his fencing matches over the years with the amateur sleuths pursuing Deep Throat’s identity. But Woodward doesn’t actually reconnect with Felt until a phone conversation and visit in 2000 that reveals how much of Felt’s memory had been lost to dementia.
Conversely, the book dodges a sensitive subject. In The Vanity Fair article, Felt’s daughter and her lawyer said they had half a dozen conversations with Woodward about collaborating on the revelation, and presumably sharing in the proceeds of any book, but Woodward doesn’t report any of this in his account of his dealings with the family.
Meanwhile, without credible testimony from the principal witness, Woodward is left with only his own speculations about Felt’s motivations 30 years earlier.
Some have assumed it was bitterness toward the White House for twice denying him the FBI director’s job.
Woodward plausibly argues that Felt believed the Nixon White House was undermining the independence of the FBI, which he believed needed to remain “a law unto itself” to protect the country.
But mostly, Woodward reluctantly concludes: “Any attempt I might make to explain or resolve or fully make sense of Mark Felt’s behavior would probably fail.”
Whatever Felt’s motivation, Woodward correctly writes that “without him, and, it must be said, without countless others who talked as confidential sources,” the truth about the Watergate scandal might have remained hidden.
That history makes this book more timely than Woodward could have anticipated. It arrives as Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, faces jail time.
Miller refused to reveal her sources to a federal prosecutor investigating the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. Although imperfect as memoir, “The Secret Man” still reminds that anonymous sources, with all their impenetrable and complex motivations, are sometimes the only way for the public to learn truths the government and other powerful institutions would hide.
Ronald Brownstein is a Los Angeles Times staff writer and columnist