While the media and the world in general is fascinated by the solving of one of the great media mysteries of modern times - the identity of “Deep Throat” - it is important to keep Mark Felt’s importance as a key player in the unfolding of the Watergate scandal in perspective. In fact the key to Nixon’s resignation was the almost inadvertent and very public testimony of one of his own officials in the White House, Alexander Butterfield.
Felt was undoubtedly a key source for the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. And his importance was amplified with the publication of Woodward and Bernstein’s best-selling 1974 book, All the President’s Men. Felt became “Deep Throat” - a reference to a well known porn movie of the time. The book’s descriptions of the elaborate and mysterious ways in which Felt would meet with the two young reporters made for good copy.
The movie, All the President’s Men, gave Felt an even greater aura of importance with actor Hal Halbrook playing “Deep Throat” in scenes that “breathed whispery urgency into the suspenseful late-night encounters between Woodward and his source,” as the Washington Post described them this week.
But, as Carl Bernstein said this week, Felt’s role in the Watergate saga “can be overstated”. Felt, said Bernstein “largely confirmed information we had already gotten from other sources”.
And Felt’s information fell far short of directly implicating Nixon in the shenanigans of his operatives in the White House and in the Republican Party’s Committee to Re-elect the President (aptly shortened to CREEP).
Felt helped the Washington Post make and confirm the link between the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate building and CREEP. And he certainly gave the Post comfort in their preparedness to broaden out the Watergate story into a myriad of tales about dirty tricks, illegal activities and extraordinary vengeance that was the hallmark of Richard Nixon’s White House.
But Felt never provided - and he never intended to although he hinted at it - direct and concrete evidence that would link Nixon to the growing scandal in the White House. That was left to a junior Nixon aide, Alexander Butterfield, who was responsible for the President’s diary and the management of paper-flow in the Oval Office.
On a Friday afternoon in July 1973 Butterfield was called to give evidence to the Senate Committee investigating the Watergate matter. By this stage, Nixon’s key aides, John Erlichman, Bob Haldeman and John Dean had all resigned or been fired by the President. Others, such as Gordon Liddy had been convicted of illegal wire-tapping and for other crimes linked to the Watergate break-in. But Nixon, it seemed, was untouchable.
Butterfield was asked by the Senate investigators preparing his testimony for the Senate Committee this innocuous question - did the White House have a taping system. Butterfield’s response would change history. "I was hoping you fellows wouldn't ask me that," Butterfield told the investigators as he confirmed the presence of such a system. Butterfield confirmed that answer to the Senate three days later.
The impact of Butterfield’s answer was that the Watergate investigation got a whole new lease of life. The infamous battle between the Congress, Nixon’s own Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and Nixon himself over the tapes gripped the nation for months. Nixon refused to hand them over, an action that placed unprecedented constitutional strain on the US and when he did, the evidence they contained sank the 37th President of the United States on August 8, 1974, the day he resigned and left office in disgrace.
As Mike Feinsilber wrote in The Houston Chronicle in a piece on the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “Without the tapes, it was unlikely Nixon would have had to give up the presidency. More than anything else that happened in the Watergate scandal - the 25-month drama that brought down a president - Butterfield's disclosure was fatal to Nixon.”
The 91 year old Mark Felt is enjoying his moment in the sun but it’s important to recognise his role in the Watergate scandal for what it was - an important confirmatory source but not the holder of the straw that broke the camel’s back. That role belongs to Richard Nixon’s diary secretary, Alexander Butterfield.
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