Friday, January 21, 2011

Bob Woodward's 2005 work 'The Secret Man' is more than interesting

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein can be said to be living off Watergate nearly 40 years after it had happened. Of course, the two have moved on. Woodward had done many more investigative stories and books. Bernstein has kept up with the likes of scathing biography of Hillary Clinton. But Watergate still defines them and much of American political anger. It even overshadows the anti-Vietnam sentiment.

Woodward's 2005 book on Mark Felt, the Deep Throat, is complicated. He shows the ambiguities of dealing with a source. Woodward tells the story with great clarity. He first met Felt in the White House before he became a journalist. Woodward was in the Navy and doing intelligence work of an elementary kind, reading mail! And sometimes he would carry sealed covers to the White House. And he built on that encounter. He says that Felt was his father's age and Woodward had some sort of a filial regard for him. It was never clearly enunciated or felt either by Woodward or by Felt. But that tenuous emotional bonding was there at least for Woodward.

This did not however blind Woodward towards Felt. He knew that Felt was always giving some solid information but he was not sure why he was doing so. He was curious to know but that did not prevent him from using the information that Felt hinted at. It was clear that as stated later by Woodward and Bernstein in a brief press statement after Felt declared himself to be the Deep Throat of Woodward-Bernstein reports on Watergate in The Washington Post that Felt was not the only source.

When Woodward looked at the declassified FBI files in early 1990s, he realised that Felt in his memos and notings was behaving like a counter-intelligence chap, covering his tracks. But that is not the story. Felt cut off the phone in anger after Woodward rang up to express his sympathy after he (Felt) was indicted by a jury for illegal searches of a probable spy-and-terrorist organisation. Woodward did not dare call him again until many years afterwards.

The only thing that angered Felt and that made him share the information -- though indirectly -- was the fact that the Nixon White House was encroaching on the autonomy of the FBI and using it for dirty political games. Felt was willing to do anything dirty for defending the country's security but not beyond that.

Woodward reveals some other details of the Felt story. Richard Nixon did not want him to head the FBI because he was a Jew. But Nixon came before the jury to testify on behalf of Felt and his colleagues in the case. Felt was a great admirer of Edgar Hoover, whom all the liberals rightly hated.  

The situation changed by then because Felt was losing his memory. He was in his mid-80s and Woodward was in his mid-50s. Felt could not recall many of the details. Woodward faces the metaphysical dilemma of the two Felts -- the one who was the Deep Throat and the one who could not remember many of the facts of Watergate.

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