I must disclose that I have never either read or seen All the President’s Men. I realize it’s practically a requirement for anyone interested in American politics and my negligence is inexcusable. Mea culpa. Actually, the central reason I felt bad about this is the fact that had I read or seen Men, I might have been able to get through one of three books I’m scheduled to review this summer: Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, written by award-winning journalist Max Holland.
Holland’s aim with this book is to challenge the conventional wisdom created by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of the Watergate wiretapping scandal that brought down then-President Richard Nixon. Their portrayal of the titular Deep Throat, who we now know as then-FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt, is one of an otherwise loyal federal employee with a simple disgust for Nixon’s attempts to cover up his re-election committee’s spying on the Democratic National Committee. Holland’s extensive bibliography makes one wonder why this theory had not been well-known.
In my personal opinion, it takes a specific kind of person to absorb all that Watergate material willingly in an effort to find a unique narrative, and Holland is certainly one of these people. (I would have needed caffeine pills, honestly.) His version of Felt is not the principled but anguished man who went to Woodward and Bernstein in desperation, but someone who was so bitter at being passed over for the FBI’s top job that he, essentially, orchestrated the entire media circus on his own.
I will leave it to others to determine the veracity of Holland’s material. But the book did raise a couple of questions for me:
- If Felt was clever enough to use his leaks to make his competitor look foolish, how did he miss the fact that bringing down Nixon, who often considered Felt for the very job he sought, could destroy chances of advancement for him? Did he just want to hold the title before he was forced to retire?
- There are a couple of points in which Holland admits that whistle-blowers are not obligated to reveal everything, but relies on Felt’s behavioral history to speculate about his motivations. Are we supposed to find this technique reliable?
Watergate enthusiasts will find Leak interesting, but those with only a surface knowledge of the story may hear about it and dismiss it as ultimately pointless iconoclasm. I might have been more invested in the book had Holland accused Felt of, say, being an “atheistic Communist Jew” (not a favorite of Nixon). But I’m not buying opportunism and petty jealousy to an extent like that.