Of Mark Felt and moral ambiguity

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Jun 07, 2005 12:00 AM

Mmmmmmm; the delicious taste of those well-remembered names: Nixon, Mitchell, Bradlee, Woodward and -- somehow more savory than most -- Deep Throat.

 The self-outing of W. Mark Felt, who confirmed the expectations of many by revealing himself as a main, early source for Bob Woodward's Watergate stories, came just in time for a country basically out of news; or weary of such news as it had -- filibusters, violence in Iraq, the start of the summer reruns. It was like old times, masticating those names again. And that was just the trouble -- the questionable odor that went with the taste, like milk kept past its sell-by date.

 The farther away in time we move from Watergate, the faster its grandeur diminishes. Not its centrality in the history of the late 20th century -- no, its status as a moral beacon for our times.

 Properly to appreciate -- or depreciate -- Watergate, one needs to be of a certain age: too young perhaps to have laughed with Fred Allen, too old to be sure whether Bjork is a singer or a ski resort.

 It was three decades ago. My wife and I watched the news of Nixon's resignation through packing boxes as we took up residence in our first home. We had been married two months. Our firstborn gets married in four months.

 Watergate for many represented our great national cleansing: the downfall of Nixon, the triumph of democratic processes. Deep Throat's secret revelations of corruption within the Nixon administration, made famous by the team of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, led eventually to congressional inquiry, impeachment hearings and partial paralysis of the national government. In the end, Nixon gave up. Jerry Ford took over the wheel.

 Are we glad? Are we sad? As to that, the media showed their hand -- for the umpteenth time -- as they played up the news of Mark Felt's role in the saga: an establishment figure. Golly -- the FBI's No. 2 guy, opposing those you'd think he would defend. The media generally had regarded Nixon as the heavy and the brothers at the Washington Post as the good guys. I would venture that it's not nearly that simple.

 For moral grandeur substitute moral ambiguity, and you get a lot closer to the heart of this tragedy. I think that is what we might most justly call Watergate: an American Tragedy (to borrow from Theodore Dreiser).

 True enough, Nixon forfeited by his own decisions and actions the confidence that Americans had twice reposed in him on Election Day. He deceived millions into accepting his innocence in the matters imputed to him. Then out came the rug from beneath his defenders' feet. "My president," an angry James Jackson Kilpatrick wrote, "is a liar."

 If only this were the whole of the matter. It's not. Deceit happens to have been a specialty of some previous presidents, especially Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. Many Nixon critics behaved as though Nixon had invented deceit in his castle laboratory and then flung it into an innocent world.

 Moreover, national crises went unattended on account of Watergate: stagflation; a growing scarcity of conventional energy sources; and most damagingly, in terms of human life, the fall of South Vietnam, whose protection post-Nixon America longer was willing to essay.

 Love or hate Richard Nixon (not many Americans fall in the first category), there's ample room for ambiguity in such a tale: the same ambiguity that oozes through the accounts of Mark Felt's perfidious patriotism -- or patriotic perfidy.

 Was Felt a hero or a common snitch -- indeed a lawbreaker -- for circumventing legal channels as he sought to get his story out? He may have been a bit of both. And what's to do about it at this remove, with Watergate 30 years in the past? There isn't much at all to do about it, except to listen and learn and try harder than ever to grasp the complexities of human nature and the constant need for the virtue of, yes, forgiveness.