Leak Max Holland

Kansas University Press, pp.285, £25.95

For Watergate junkies, another raking of the old coals is irresistible. For those underage younger persons who never understood what all the fuss was about, here is the chance to get with it.

Just to remind: in June 1972, a bunch of nasties, some of whose day job was with the CIA but currently working for Richard Nixon the President of the USA, broke into the offices of the rival Democratic party in the Watergate building and got caught red-handed. Nixon’s White House tried to cover up this illegal entry. A junior reporter at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, unearthed a five-star source known on the Post and round the world as ‘Deep Throat’.

He leaked to Woodward details of the FBI’s investigation of the break-in and other juicy details, not always true, which helped to sustain the story until — two years and a congressional impeachment of the President later — Nixon resigned and Woodward ascended into journalistic Valhalla as the pattern for all time of the hero investigative journalist. Nixon, having sort of confessed and kind of said sorry to David Frost, died some years later, still in disgrace.

A third of a century after Watergate, Deep Throat, possibly suffering dementia, finally identified himself as one Mark Felt, who had been No. 2 in the FBI at the material time. Max Holland’s focus is on the question why did he, Felt, do it. Woodward had over the years offered various explanations, chiefly that he was a conscientious whistle-blower disgusted by Nixon’s shenanigans, but also that personal ambition and office politics may have played a part.

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According to Holland this ambivalence was ‘a gaping hole at the centre of the narrative’. In fact, he argues, it was all office intrigue following the death of J. Edgar Hoover in May 1972, and the ensuing battle for the succession to his throne. Felt was not trying to bring down Nixon, whom he supported, but to manipulate Nixon into nominating him as the next director of the FBI.

The way Holland tells it calls into question the fundamentals of the Watergate legend, most particularly the hero status of Bob Woodward and the Washington Post as the brave and indefatigable exposers of serious wrong-doing in the highest of high places. According to Holland, it was Felt who was using Woodward for his own undeclared and unreported purposes; and it was the FBI, not Woodward, which cracked the case in the course of its own investigation, never successfully obstructed by the White House or the President.

This thesis has extra resonance at a time when the freedom of the press is allegedly under attack, at least in Britain according to those who think that freedom to tittle-tattle about other people’s sex lives and to eavesdrop on their private conversations are keystones of the liberties which John Milton, John Wilkes and John Stuart Mill won for us. Others may find it difficult to recognise the natural heirs of these heroes in the persons of Peeping Tom and Hacking Harriet of the late unlamented News of the World.

As to Watergate, nothing in Holland’s telling of the story diminishes in any way the importance or difficulty of what Woodward and the Post did. Although they were not entirely alone, they got the story and they kept it going; and the result was that in the end the Congress did its job, established the facts and faced the President with impeachment because he had violated his oath of office to uphold the laws of the United States. This would not have happened in Moscow — nor for that matter very probably in London, at least so far as Rupert Murdoch’s publications are concerned.

It is true that much of what Woodward heard from Deep Throat was the result of the FBI’s own investigations; but that does not make it any the less of a journalistic scoop, nor any the less important in making public what the FBI were not yet making public. Nor does the fact that Felt had devious reasons for his revelations to Woodward diminish in any way the significance of what he revealed, even if he also embroidered the truth with some imaginary extras.

He may never actually have said, except in the movie, ‘All the way’ in answer to the question ‘How high does it go?’; but he might just as well have done; since armed with confirmation of things he suspected or half knew, Woodward was able, thanks also to the courage of Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham, editor and publisher of the Post respectively, to sustain the coverage that has made him the biggest name in modern journalism.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, History, Politics (US)