June 1, 2005

David Frum & Peggy Noonan on Liberalism, Deep Throat & the Significance of Watergate

I never liked Richard Nixon. As a student at the time, I listened to both the Senate and House hearings on Watergate. With what I heard in those hearings, I concluded he was a crook when he was President and my opinion of him has not changed with the passage of time. Over the years, I have also come to realize how his policies diminished freedom at home by ensuring the ongoing growth in the size and regulatory scope of the federal government.

With all of that in mind, though, it is hard not to react with a range of emotions, including some ambivalence, to the revelation of that W. Mark Felt, the former #2 at the FBI, was Deep Throat. The commentaries below highlight some of the reasons for that ambivalence.

David Frum has this to say about the significance of Watergate with the disclosure of Felt as Deep Throat:

...There should be no evasion here: Richard Nixon committed serious crimes as president, including violation of the campaign-finance laws and obstruction of justice. Under his bad example and following his perverse incentives, a whole generation of senior Republican officials marched into lawlessness.

That said, as it must be said, some additional perspective is in order as the big media descends into yet another spasm of Watergate delight ....

1) There were very few if any crimes committed under Richard Nixon that FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ did not also commit, from snooping on political opponents' IRS records (something that Nixon was prevented from doing but that FDR regularly did), to violating campaign laws (an LBJ speciality). Standards seem to have been a little higher under Eisenhower, but that may be a gap in the historical record. I argued in my history of the 1970s, How We Got Here that Nixon's misconduct has to be seen as an exaggerated form of the misconduct of his predecessors, and not as some unique deviation of his own.

2) One reason that Watergate memories so galvanize the press is that liberal journalists can now understand that Watergate represented the very zenith of their cultural influence. For one shining, shimmering moment, they decided who were cultural heroes and who were villains.

They could transmute a bitter old segregationist like Sam Ervin into a defender of the Constitution for standing against Nixon --and utterly destroy an innocent like former Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans for standing too close to him. There was no Fox News, no Rush Limbaugh, and barely even a Wall Street Journal editorial page as Robert Bartley would build it and we now know it.

Deep Throat is a perfect example of this. There is something disturbing is there not about a law-enforcement official becoming convinced of the guilt of his target, and leaking information against him to the media?

Didn't Clinton defenders rave against Ken Starr and his team for allegedly doing so? Isn't that the justification, to the extent that there is any justification, for Senate Democrats' unreasoning rancor against Bush judicial pick Brett Kavanaugh, a former Starr counsel?

And yet when the #2 of the FBI admits that he does so against Richard Nixon, it becomes time to pull out the block of marble and the chisels.

American liberals have lost this cultural power for good, but the memory of it remains sweet.

3) Finally, today might be a good day to recall that the techniques of cover-up used by Nixon were borrowed later by Bill Clinton. True, Nixon was covering up a grave political offense, and Clinton was covering up a tawdry affair. The Nixon administration was a somber and sometimes sinister tragedy; the Clinton administration an absurd farce. And yet in a purely formal sense, the parallels between the two scandal-tainted governments are striking, a point I made back in 1998 with this little jape, printed in The Weekly Standard and being posted today in the archive at David Frum's website.

The following articles add further context to Frum's commentary:

The Washington Post carried this story, including these words:

...after the death of Hoover, an epochal moment for the FBI, which had never been led by anyone else. Felt wanted the job, he later wrote. He also wanted his beloved bureau to maintain its independence. And so his motivations were complex when Woodward called a month later seeking clues to the strange case of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. Again, the young reporter had a metro angle on a national story, because the five alleged burglars were arraigned before a local judge.

Wounded that he was passed over for the top job, furious at Nixon's choice of an outsider, Assistant Attorney General L. Patrick Gray III, as acting FBI director, and determined that the White House not be allowed to steer and stall the bureau's Watergate investigation, Mark Felt slipped into the role that would forever alter his life...

Here is what some former federal prosecutors had to say:

W. Mark Felt violated FBI and Justice Department policies by sharing with reporters information about the Watergate scandal, but it's not clear whether he broke any laws, several former federal prosecutors said...

The former prosecutors said that if they were to look into Felt's conversations with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward they would examine whether he violated federal rules that keep grand jury matters secret, whether he disclosed other confidential material that was part of the Watergate investigation or broke privacy rules by revealing the names of people who had yet to be charged with a crime.

"The administrative penalties for some of these things could be severe, including dismissal," said Joseph di Genova, who served as U.S. attorney in Washington during the Reagan administration.

John Barrett, a law professor at St. John's University in New York, said that among the many ironies in the Deep Throat story is that Felt, as the official who ran the FBI on a day-to-day basis, almost certainly had to deal with the sort of employee misconduct that he apparently engaged in.

Determining whether Felt broke any laws would require analyzing each piece of information he either provided or corroborated, said E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., who was a young prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington at the time of the Watergate break-in...

One unanswered question raised both by Barrett, a prosecutor in the Iran-Contra investigation, and di Genova is why Felt chose to work with a reporter instead of taking his concerns about White House interference with the FBI to Congress.

"If the head of the FBI and the Justice Department criminal division are both pipelines to the White House, perhaps you go across the branches of government to Congress, if you're a responsible government official," Barrett said...

Here are some additional comments:

..."I view him as a troubled man. I don't think it's heroic to act as a spy on your president when you're in high office. I could fully understand if he resigned ... or if he went to the prosecutor. That would be heroic," Kissinger said.

G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon associate who led the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel and office complex, told FOX News on Wednesday..."What you are ethically bound to do is go to a grand jury and seek an indictment and not go to a single news source," said Liddy, who was convicted and served nearly five years in prison for his role in the scandal.

Alexander Haig, Nixon's former chief of staff who had been fingered by Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean III as Deep Throat, also said he doesn't view Felt in a favorable way. "I don't think I would categorize him as a hero in any way," he said.

"I live by a code that if you work for a president, you stay loyal to that president and if you can't for whatever reasons, then you have the obligation to resign and take whatever steps necessary in your power," he said...

Ben Bradlee, the Post's top editor during the Watergate scandal, said in an interview with his old paper that he wouldn't recognize Felt if he had seen him, but he knew all along that "Deep Throat" was a high-ranking FBI official and learned his name within a couple of weeks after Nixon's resignation.

"The No. 2 guy at the FBI, that was a pretty good source," Bradlee told The Washington Post. "I knew the paper was on the right track." The "quality of the source" and the soundness of his guidance made him sure of that, he said.

Bradlee told FOX News on Wednesday that the Watergate story "was such excitement — the fact is, it was the Post's great story."

Haig said he figured Deep Throat was a high-level FBI official but warned the public not to overestimate the source's importance in history.

"I think we're always tempted when these things happen to overblow the importance of Deep Throat in the overall outcome of Watergate. It's very important to remember it was the tapes that finally turned the country against the president and that was the real death blow to Richard Nixon, but it was politics that brought us there," Haig told FOX News on Wednesday...

Four more articles are here, here, here, and here.

to conclude, Peggy Noonan again offers her penetrating thoughts:

…Was Mr. Felt a hero? No one wants to be hard on an ailing 91-year-old man. Mr. Felt no doubt operated in some perceived jeopardy and judged himself brave. He had every right to disapprove of and wish to stop what he saw as new moves to politicize the FBI. But a hero would have come forward, resigned his position, declared his reasons, and exposed himself to public scrutiny. He would have taken the blows and the kudos. (Knowing both Nixon and the media, there would have been plenty of both.) Heroes pay the price. Mr. Felt simply leaked information gained from his position in government to damage those who were doing what he didn't want done. Then he retired with a government pension. This does not appear to have been heroism, and he appears to have known it…

Even if Mr. Felt had mixed motives, even if he did not choose the most courageous path in attempting to spread what he thought was the truth, his actions might be judged by their fruits. The Washington Post said yesterday that Mr. Felt's information allowed them to continue their probe. That probe brought down a president. Ben Stein is angry but not incorrect: What Mr. Felt helped produce was a weakened president who was a serious president at a serious time. Nixon's ruin led to a cascade of catastrophic events--the crude and humiliating abandonment of Vietnam and the Vietnamese, the rise of a monster named Pol Pot, and millions--millions--killed in his genocide. America lost confidence; the Soviet Union gained brazenness. What a terrible time. Is it terrible when an American president lies and surrounds himself by dirty tricksters? Yes, it is. How about the butchering of children in the South China Sea. Is that worse? Yes. Infinitely, unforgettably and forever…

Maybe the big lesson on Felt and Watergate is as simple as the law of unintended consequences. You do something and things happen and you don't mean them to, and if you could take it back you would, but it's too late. The repercussions have already repercussed. Mark Felt cannot have intended to encourage such epic destruction. He must have thought he was doing the right thing, protecting his agency and maybe getting some forgivable glee out of making Nixon look bad. But oh the implications. Literally: the horror…