TOPICS > Nation

Understanding the Impact of the Deep Throat

June 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now that we can put a name and face on "Deep Throat," what more is there to learn from that 30-year-old secret, and how did the Watergate scandal he helped unleash end up shaping our government, our politics and our journalism?

Joining us to sort through all that: Herbert Klein, who served as communications director for President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973 — he is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; historian Ellen Fitzpatrick of the University of New Hampshire; and Sanford Ungar, the president of Goucher College — he got to know Mark Felt, now known as Deep Throat, in the 1970s while writing a book about the FBI. Welcome to you all.

Let me start by talking to Ellen Fitzpatrick for a moment. When we look at this historically, the long view as it were, how did Watergate, as we now know it, and with this latest revelation, how did it change the presidency?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it created a much deeper skepticism in American life about American politics. It’s hard to turn the hands of time back to remember that there was the day when the president was greatly revered, there was tremendous respect for the office, as appropriately there is still today.

But it was often the case that people believed that when the president spoke, he told the truth, and when he said something was so, it was so. Watergate changed all of that. It fed into what already existed — a deep skepticism — and it furthered it by showing that in fact what the Nixon White House was saying was true was not, in fact, true.

GWEN IFILL: Herb Klein, you were in the Nixon White House and you have spent the years since watching other presidencies. What’s your sense on how much Watergate changed the whole face of the presidency?

HERBERT KLEIN: I think it changed it considerably, and the first thing it did was to weaken the power of the presidency. Congress moved to move against the White House, and so, for example, when the North Vietnamese moved to South Vietnam, President Ford was pretty much handicapped from doing so.

It also brought about a lot of people not wanting to run for office, so we had young assistants in congressional offices filling the office instead of having people coming from the community. It had a lot of effect on the whole thing, but you have to remember that skepticism about the presidency didn’t start with Watergate. It started with Vietnam and the lack of really belief in what we’re saying about Vietnam itself.

GWEN IFILL: I definitely want to go back to that, but Sanford Ungar, let me ask you. You knew Mark Felt, wrote a book about the FBI, and you’ve certainly been watching all of this, including the way journalism has changed since the 1970s. What’s your answer to that question?

SANFORD UNGAR: Well, I think the first thing is the book to say, Gwen, is that book was published 29 years ago and it’s fascinating to look back now and see that Mark Felt, when I knew him for a period of time, spent several intense sessions with him talking to him, was a very opportunistic person who thought still he had a chance to become director of the FBI, and I think he may have done the right thing for the wrong motive or at least for partially the wrong motive at the time.

In terms of the effect of all of this on journalism, you know, I think that the combination of Vietnam and Watergate allowed young journalists to believe that they could do what they thought they could do. The reason they went into journalism in many cases was to try to change the world, to try to make a really significant difference in people’s lives, and I think watching the Watergate scandal unfold, as well as the denouement in Vietnam, allowed people to think it did make a difference what journalists did.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you, of course, did you know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat?

SANFORD UNGAR: I did not know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. I was led off track by the fact that — as I remember this — that Deep Throat had to be a smoker. And Mark Felt did not smoke when I was with him.

And I found a hard time imagining him as a smoker because he was such a dapper, meticulous person, that I couldn’t imagine him getting ash on his suit or being willing to smell like a cigarette. That was — that’s where I went wrong.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, let’s go back to a couple of the points that both President Ungar and Herb Klein made, which is, let’s talk about how Watergate changed people’s minds.

First of all, was skepticism, did it preexist before the 1970s and Watergate? We all think that people changed their minds about government after Watergate. Maybe it preexisted. And has it tainted what came after?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, it certainly preexisted in many ways, Watergate was a result of the concern over this kind of skepticism that existed; that is, there was an enormous amount of division in the United States over the war. There was tremendous dissent, and it was concern about that dissent and worry about political enemies, about the anti-war movement that really led President Nixon down this path, a great deal of concern about that.

And so, there was, I think, a climate of suspicion, but this certainly — the choices that were made during Watergate to try to stop this investigation, because it would reveal a whole host of other things that occurred in an attempt to damage the president’s political enemies, that was really the thing that made Watergate what it was. And so, yes, these things existed. It greatly deepened it, and it fueled a very profound cynicism about American political life; I believe that is still with us today.

GWEN IFILL: Did that cynicism in any way also go hand in hand with a greater transparency that may have resulted from the Watergate scandal?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Perhaps, but remember during the Iran-Contra proceedings, one of the things that Adm. (John) Poindexter was quoted as saying was that one of the reasons that (Ronald) Reagan was kept out of the loop was to maintain plausible deniability. I’m not sure that corruption exited the picture, but certainly there was a heightened awareness of the importance of protecting the president from these kinds of exposures.

GWEN IFILL: HerbKlein, Mark Felt obviously had his own questions that had been raised about him during his career. He was a very loyal lieutenant to J. Edgar Hoover, but as someone who worked in that White House, was one of the president’s men, do you now look at what Mark Felt did in those days and is doing now today by revealing himself to be a good thing for the country or a bad thing?

HERBERT KLEIN: I regard it as a bad thing. I think that we’re going to have to have had exposure of the power grab in the White House one way or the other, but I think he’s a man who violated his ethics — where he worked for the FBI, where you’re supposed to keep things secret, not go around feeding the information to reporters.

So, understand, he says he’s a hero. I don’t regard him as that. And I think another thing to — we talked about is the word "Deep Throat" was added to the fact when they wrote a book, when they used it for the movie. I wonder if people would really be as excited about it if (Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein had not attached that sexy term "Deep Throat."

GWEN IFILL: I’m not sure all these years later anyone knows what’s sexy about that term, but let me ask you another question to follow on that, Herb Klein, which is: If it’s true that he did the wrong thing and that he shouldn’t have revealed his secret, is there any justification in it if he brought down a government that was later seen to be corrupt?

HERBERT KLEIN: I think that there was justification for that, but the fact is the Nixon administration was brought down by the tapes, not by Mark Felt or Deep Throat. It certainly was the stir which Woodward and Bernstein did as fine reporters, stirred a lot of attention; it also stirred bitterness within the press corps and the White House, so that it had a tremendous effect overall.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Sanford Ungar, in the end, did the use of the original anonymous source, the most famous anonymous source, begin to pollute or change or open a Pandora’s Box in the way journalism is covered?

SANFORD UNGAR: First of all, Gwen, I think we have to acknowledge this is not the original anonymous source, that anonymous sources have been a factor in American journalism for many years. This is perhaps the most famous as Herb Klein points out, the most cleverly named anonymous source.

The truth is for all the statements about reform and the need to change things, anonymous sources are still used every day. They’re necessary. They’re part of the process. Some of these anonymous sources are in government. Some of them are outside government. Some are all over the place, people who used to be in government.

I think that probably, oddly enough, the after effect of Watergate and of the pendulum swinging back in the other direction has been that people have been more cautious or believe they should be more cautious about the use of anonymous sources. And of course, I think caution is much to be saluted in the use of sources, no question about that at all.

But I think that this was a major step forward for journalism. It showed — and I think people will debate for many years — perhaps Professor Fitzpatrick is the one to pass more of a judgment historically on who really brought the Nixon administration down. It was a joint effort.

Certainly the work that was done by Woodward and Bernstein and many other people at the Washington Post and other news organizations, including some that I believe you worked for at the time, it was a very important test of American journalism and what it could do. I think the fact that there was an anonymous source at the heart of their efforts is a significant, but not determinative thing.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask that question of Ellen Fitzpatrick. What will history say about who actually brought the president down? Was it an anonymous source, were it these two intrepid reporters who did; was it the tapes, and it had nothing really to do with anything we’re talking about today?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I think it actually had a great deal to do with the pattern of exercising power in an imperial presidency by Richard Nixon, but it had to do with the broader concentration of power in the White House that really dated from the post-World War II period where more and more decision making over foreign policy was being centralized in the White House through the National Security Council, for instance.

And one of the things that Nixon tried to do was to really answer his anti-war critics, to deal with the fatigue over the Vietnam War while escalating the war. It was a very delicate balancing act. Part of it was done secretly. And he was frustrated by these leaks. The leaks led to efforts to stop them. The Pentagon Papers were crucial in all of this, leading to the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. And so I think we’re really looking at a broader problem, having to do with the centralization of power, carrying on a war, saying one thing to the public, doing another thing in private, and it all got busted open.

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

SANFORD UNGAR: And, of course, Gwen if certain newspapers — the New York Times followed by the Washington Post and others — had not published the Pentagon Papers there would have been no Watergate. And that’s clear now that the original reason for forming the White House Plumbers was to try to figure out what was going on, what Daniel Ellsberg was really doing, ironically, because the Nixon White House did not trust the FBI to investigate Daniel Ellsberg, because Daniel Ellsberg’s father-in-law was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover.

It sounds like something we’re making up, but that’s what happened at the time. So in that sense, journalism was at the heart of this entire thing because the willingness to take the risk of publishing the Pentagon Papers preceded Watergate, and that was — that really was a turning point. I think the answer to the question earlier, one of the answers is that Richard Nixon brought himself down. I think that he — the way he behaved and some of the people around him mis-served him was his ultimate undoing.

GWEN IFILL: Sandy Ungar –

HERBERT KLEIN: I would agree with that.

GWEN IFILL: Herb Klein, you get the final word, then, you would agree.

HERBERT KLEIN: I would agree.

GWEN IFILL: Great, Herb Klein, Ellen Fitzpatrick, and Sandy Ungar, thank you all very much.

SANFORD UNGAR: Thank you, Gwen.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you.