On Friday, March 16, join author Max Holland for a look at Mark Felt, the FBI official behind “Deep Throat,” the secretive whistleblower of the Watergate scandal. Holland will be speaking at the International Spy Museum from noon until 2 p.m. on his latest book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat.
Best known through Hal Holbrook’s portrayal in the film version of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, Felt was regarded for decades as a conscientious but highly secretive whistleblower who shunned the limelight. Yet even after he finally revealed his identity in 2005, questions about his true motivations persisted.
Max Holland has found the missing piece of that Deep Throat puzzle—one that’s been hidden in plain sight all along. He reveals for the first time in detail what truly motivated the FBI’s number-two executive to become the most fabled secret source in American history. In the process, he directly challenges Felt’s own explanations while also demolishing the legend fostered by Woodward and Bernstein’s bestselling account.
Max Holland is editor of the website Washington Decoded, contributing editor to the Wilson Quarterly and The Nation, and author of The Kennedy Assassination Tapes: The White House Conversations of Lyndon B. Johnson Regarding the Assassination, the Warren Commission, and the Aftermath. He received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for a forthcoming book on the Warren Commission. Holland took a moment to discuss the book and his research.
In your book you indicated you were not a “real time” Watergate buff, but after catching up became more fascinated with the journalistic angle. Could you elaborate on that?
I was a “real time” buff in the sense that I watched with rapt attention the entirety of the Ervin Committee hearings in the spring/summer of 1972. Afterwards, though, I read none of the histories and memoirs— or even All the President’s Men (although I did see the movie naturally).
My interest in the matter was rekindled when I read in the Washington Post in 2007 that Woodward and Bernstein had sold their papers to the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. I thought to myself, “Hmm, I wonder what’s in them that we don’t know already.” Because I realized from long experience researching archives that they invariably reveal a history different from the one widely accepted.
The more I researched and the more I read, I realized that Mark Felt’s alleged motives made no sense, that the explanations offered to date were suspect.
Do you feel that Watergate has affected the nature of the press to this day?
There is no doubt that it has, though historians of American journalism are better able to describe this phenomenon than I am. (One good book is Jon Marshall’s Watergate’s Legacy and the Press). Certainly, Watergate affected generations of reporters in how they cover the presidency if not Washington in general, and perhaps not all to the good. One reason I wanted to write the book is that I don’t think it’s a healthy situation when the widely-accepted version of what happened is, in fact, a fairy tale.
What media outlets do you feel have the important official’s ear now?
The New York Times remains pre-eminent I think, but I might be old-fashioned. For news that is purely political Politico.com is up there. But these days it matters less where a story appears than what it has to say.
CNN’s Matt Welch has linked LEAK: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat with Warren Buffett and his relationship with the press and President Obama. What are your feelings on the comparison?
One of the oddities that come with writing a book is watching people use it for their own purposes (or columns). I’m all for examining the motives of sources . . . and watching what they do as opposed to what they say (to put a twist on an old John Mitchell saying). But Welch’s column was, to put it politely, a stretch.
How important do you feel this information is to the students of journalism today?
Any history that gives budding journalists a firmer grip on reality is good.
As that world evolves into the digital landscape, do you believe there is an economy for the kind of reporting generally thought vital to the functioning of a democracy?
An economic basis for what’s called investigative journalism has to be found; otherwise we are going to be in big trouble. As it is, the media are usually fighting a rear-guard action, exposing wrong-doing only after it has already been done.
Join Max Holland at the International Spy Museum from noon to 2 pm on Friday, March 16. Tickets are free. The museum is located at 800 F Street, NW, in Penn Quarter and is located one block from the Chinatown/Penn Quarter Metro stop, serving the Red, Green, and Yellow lines.
Interview and content assistance gratefully received from Allison Bishop, International Spy Museum.