There are no heroes here

Posted: Jun 06, 2005 12:00 AM

Former second-in-command at the FBI, W. Mark Felt, revealed that he is ?deep throat,? the legendary source who ?leaked? classified information to the Washington Post and ultimately toppled the Nixon administration. Lost in the hubbub is the story of Frank Willis, the Watergate Security guard who discovered the break-in attempt. On June 17, 1972, Willis was making his rounds at the Watergate Hotel, which served as the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, when he noticed a piece of duct tape affixed to the latch of a stairway door. The tape prevented the door form locking. Willis ripped the tape from the door and continued his rounds. By the time he circled back, a new piece of tape had been affixed to the door, arousing Willis? suspicions.  He called in the police, who found a group of five burglars on the sixth floor of the building.  The police arrested the burglars at gunpoint, igniting what would become the Watergate scandal.

After the scandal broke, Willis resigned from his security guard position.  He had difficulty finding work after that. Most institutions feared the government would cut their funds if they hired him. In 1990, Willis returned to South Carolina to care for his sick mother.  They lived together off her $450 a month Social Security check.  When she died in 1992, Willis was too poor to pay for a funeral, and had to donate her body to science. Willis spent the next 10 years living in obscurity.  On September 27, 2000, the man whose phone call changed history, died penniless.

Of course, no one talks about Willis.  The story of a poor security guard doesn't arouse our imagination.  All the press goes to ?deep throat,? the mysterious white House source that fueled the public inquiry into Nixon?s misdeeds.  His story has all the classic elements of a cloak and dagger drama: it was about secret dealings and the machinations of a small coterie of executive officers whose secret dealings threatened the administration of justice in this country.  It was the grand story of its era, and ?deep throat? was the insider who that hauled it all along.  His name became ingrained in the popular folklore.
And now that ?deep throat? has been unmasked, there seems to be a tendency to fill him in with the grandness of the story itself, to manufacture in him the stuff of heroics, to portray Felt as an FBI stalwart whose unyielding sense of honor led him to guard the integrity of the FBI.  Or, as Felt?s grandson put it in a recent public statement: ?The family believes my grandfather, Mark Felt, Sr., is a great American hero who went well above and beyond the call to duty at much risk to himself to save his country from a horrible injustice. We all sincerely hope the country will see him this way as well.?
Then there is the other Felt: the former FBI bagman whose sense of duty did not prevent him from committing similar agency funded break-ins himself. (Felt was famously pardoned by Ronald Reagan in 1981 for his participation in FBI-led burglaries.) There was the bitter Felt. The once heir apparent to J. Edgar Hoover that was passed over by Nixon.  On or about the time he was snubbed by Nixon, Felt began leaking confidential information to the Post.
That Felt went to the press, rather than the legal authorities about Nixon?s misdeeds, suggests that he was out to publicly destroy Nixon. That Felt consistently denied that he was ?deep throat? suggest that he was conflicted about what he did. Had Felt believed he was acting out of honor, then almost certainly he would have fessed up long ago. He would have made a stand; he would have guarded the FBI?s honor and image.  Instead he lurked around parking garages passing classified information to reporters. These are not the acts of a hero. They are the acts of an aggressively petty FBI agent with a mean sense of entitlement and a grudge.  Pat Buchanan summed it up succinctly: ?What he [Felt] should have done, was if he felt the investigation was corrupted, stand up and say, 'I'm going to resign from the FBI because I don't want to be a party to what's going on.  This is not correct, I think things are going on in the White House that are wrong. I don't believe they're investigated. I don't believe they're being investigated properly.?   Instead, he sneaks around during a political campaign and leaks the results of an investigation to the Washington Post.  I think he did it for the same reason Woodward said,  ?He was passed over for Director and he was bitter and full of resentment, and this was payback ?
Personal vanity?anger?lies?These are not the qualities that we tend to look for in our heroes. They are the qualities we find in Mr. Felt. In all fairness they are also qualities embodied by the Nixon cronies that Felt ratted out.  Maybe there simply are no heroes here. And maybe we should temper our instinct to give order to the broad sweep of Watergate by suggesting that Felt somehow represents the stuff of greatness. Because, really, there is only one person who comes off pure in this tale?it?s an obscure Watergate security guard named Frank, whose call to the police tilted our world on its axis, and ensured that he would die penniless and forgotten.