Lately I’ve been wallowing in Watergate, as people my age often do when they approach their anecdotage. Why, I remember it as if it were yesterday: the sweltering summer of 1973, the motionless air and the hum of cicadas across a suburban lawn, the cool of the shade on the side porch of a friend’s house where an ancient TV buzzed hour after hour with the high drama of the Senate Watergate hearings. A writer named Max Holland, a few years older than I, spent the summer glued to the hearings, too. After many years as a muckraking journalist, he has also returned to wallow, with grand results. 

His new book, Leak, is an assault on the foundation myth of modern American journalism. It may indeed be true, as two generations of journalists and readers and moviegoers have been told, that one brave newspaper and two lonely reporters, the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, joined with a mysterious source called Deep Throat to bring down a power-mad president through pluck, patriotism, and the power of an independent press. 

But probably not.

The tarnished star of Holland’s book is Mark Felt, at one time the third-highest-ranking official in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Felt revealed himself to be Deep Throat a few years before his death in 2008. In doing so, he modestly confirmed the long-standing consensus that Deep Throat was moved to leak by love of country: Having found a soul mate in Woodward, he tried selflessly to save the Republic and, lucky for us, succeeded. 

Over the years a few troublemakers have filed dissents to the consensus. The earliest and most perceptive appeared in these pages in July 1974. The investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein combed through Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling book All the President’s Men, the mythologist’s bible, and matched their account of Deep Throat against his own interviews with FBI agents and federal prosecutors. Epstein noticed that each of Deep Throat’s leaks had a common effect: They discredited the acting director of the FBI, a glum bureaucrat named L. Patrick Gray. At the time Epstein thought Deep Throat was a “composite” invention of Woodward and Bernstein’s, while his law enforcement sources believed the leaker was Mark Felt. Whoever he was, Epstein wrote, Deep Throat’s carefully chosen leaks were at best a tactic in a bureaucratic turf war. All along, “the intention was to get rid of Gray.”

Perfectly plausible and unbearably heretical, Epstein’s findings soon slipped down the memory hole. Now Holland’s research confirms Epstein’s deduction about Deep Throat’s motives and adds an overlay of conjecture: Felt’s aim was not merely institutional but crudely self-serving. He defamed Gray because he wanted the top job for himself. That stuff about saving the Republic? Not a big priority for this G-man. 

Holland’s revisionism isn’t entirely countercultural. He dutifully flatters Those Who Must Be Flattered, such as Woodward, Bernstein, and their editor Ben Bradlee, and reviles Those Who Must Be Reviled, such as Richard Nixon. But Holland is shrewd enough to see the collateral damage his conclusions entail. The Watergate myth of the “journalist-hero,” as he calls it, is wrong in all its particulars. 

For starters, Woodward and Bernstein, even in combination with their fellow Washington reporters, did not expose the scandal’s breadth through their investigative work. Holland quotes Time’s Sandy Smith, a now forgotten reporter whose coverage of Watergate was as ample as Woodward and Bernstein’s. “There’s a myth that the press did all this, uncovered all the crimes,” Smith said. “It’s bunk….In my material there was less than two percent that was truly original investigation.” The same could be said of the Post’s Watergate coverage. The other 98 percent consisted of information parceled out to reporters by government investigators from congressional committees and the FBI—colorless drudges who looked nothing like Robert Redford. 

Even so, the mythologists say, the Post’s great contribution was to keep the Watergate story percolating, buying time for government investigators to do their work before the public and Congress lost interest. And the Post did indeed boom the Watergate scandal day after day through late 1972 and early 1973. It did this by publishing prominently placed articles by Woodward and Bernstein that were either redundant or wrong. Bradlee and his underlings “wrestled with the larger meaning of the scandal,” as Holland puts it, because “things didn’t add up.” Too many of the scandalous activities seemed unconnected to one another. Eagerly they developed a unified-field theory of Watergate that forced things to add up. The key was a hapless low-level Republican operative named Donald Segretti who specialized in dirty tricks, all of them ineffectual, against Democratic candidates during the 1972 campaign. 

The Post announced the grand theory in a “seminal story that changed everything” (Woodward’s phrase). Woodward and Bernstein had discovered “an assault on democracy.” It was a “massive campaign of political spying and sabotage”—including the original Watergate break-in—“conducted on behalf of President Nixon’s reelection.” The conspiracy deployed at least 50 operatives like Segretti across the country, hatching nefarious and illegal plots. Woodward and Bernstein assured readers that their information came directly from FBI sources.

In truth it came from one source, Felt, during a four-hour clandestine meeting with Woodward (yes, in a darkened garage). Felt knew that many of the details he fed Woodward were untrue; the larger context of an immense conspiracy directed from the White House was his own invention. There was no massive deployment of Segretti-like operatives, and Segretti’s dirty-trick operation had no connection to the Watergate break-in. Felt didn’t bother to tell Woodward the inconvenient truth: The scandalous activities seemed unconnected to one another because…they were unconnected to one another. The true crimes of Watergate came in the cover-up planned and executed by the president and his staff, about which Felt knew almost nothing. 

The enterprising Holland has discovered still more. The notes Woodward took at this meeting with Felt, now in a university archive, differ markedly from the account that Woodward gives in All the President’s Men. “Many sentences [in the book] are moved around and the progression of Felt’s remarks rearranged,” Holland writes. “Occasionally the meaning of what [Felt] said is substantially changed….The account in the book contains words, phrases, and sometimes whole sentences that are not present in the type-written notes at all.” Here, then, is what we’ve been dealing with all these years: an inaccurate account explaining an erroneous newspaper article containing facts supplied by a double-dealing source who knew them to be untrue. A messy business, journalism.

And messiness seems to be what the mythologists want to avoid above all. Journalism craves tidiness and simplicity. There’s a reason that reporters call their articles “stories”: The ideal is a causal sequence of rationally explainable events placed in an order that is easy to follow. But facts don’t come packaged in stories, not in real life. The constellation of crimes we’ve come to call “Watergate” was unfathomably messy. The “story” that Bradlee and Woodward and Bernstein provided, along with their many acolytes in the news business, is a morality tale with themselves as heroes, and the villains come ready-made.

Most of us have been happy to swallow it. It wasn’t until years after the Watergate hearings, watched with such ardor that summer of ’73, that I came to understand how messy the reality was. The self-described “old country lawyer” who oversaw the proceedings with paternal benevolence, Sen. Sam Ervin, was in fact an old country segregationist who believed that his “beloved Constitution” protected Jim Crow. The parade of witnesses, each an easily identifiable type, grew more complicated, too. A villain like Gordon Liddy turned out to be merely a harmless crank, while a fearless truth-teller like John Dean revealed himself in the coming decades to be an utterly untrustworthy opportunist. And the right-wing monster who hovered above it all—America’s very own Blofeld, a malignancy in human form—has emerged from history as the most progressive Republican president since Theodore Roosevelt.

How this jumbled reality was packaged as a morality tale makes for a pretty good story, too. Max Holland won’t be forgiven for telling a crucial part of it.

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