Of myth and the man

Posted: Jun 03, 2005 12:00 AM

In the annals of letdowns, this week's revelation that the legendary "Deep Throat" was one Mark Felt comes close to edging out Santa Claus for the top slot.

As one of a generation of reporters who came of age during the Watergate era, I confess that my reaction fell somewhat short of "Ohmigod, you gotta be kidding!! No wa-ay!!"

Instead, it went more like this: "Oh."

Mark Felt? Just the No. 2 guy in the FBI, aka "my friend?" THE Deep Throat? That's it?!

Apparently, not everyone was surprised. Felt's name had appeared on various what-if lists through the years. After the story broke Tuesday in Vanity Fair, several who-didn't-know stories surfaced.

One was that Jacob Bernstein, the then-8-year-old son of Carl (of the famed Bob Woodward and Bernstein Washington Post reporting team) told a camp buddy years ago that Felt was Deep Throat. Bernstein's then-wife and Jacob's mother, writer Nora Ephron, posted on the Huffington Post blog that she figured it out years ago and told anyone who asked, including her son.

But Woodward and Bernstein kept their word and Felt's secret, thus spawning an industry in "Watergate" speculation. In the more than 30 years since Watergate, countless rumors have circulated, dozens of books have been written, and many fortunes made. Until this week, the mystery has remained a tantalizing source of wonder. Who could it be?

The communal "we" understood that Deep Throat's identity would be revealed upon his death. And so we waited patiently, certain that the truth, once revealed, would be riveting and gratifying, the final act in America's longest-playing reality show.

Felt did not, in fact, die, but decided at the urging of his family to reveal himself.

As is often the case with mysteries, not knowing was much more fun than knowing. Now what?

In my own fantasy, Deep Throat would not have been a straight guy with a short haircut. For starters, he would have been a "she" - a smoky-voiced, sultry agent whose high heels tapping against the parking garage floor signaled to Woodward that it was time to produce a Zippo. The lady needs a light.

Maybe she was a jilted lover. Nixon's? John Mitchell's? Or a vengeful wife. Or perhaps, though ravishing, she had a jealous streak. A black widow who devours her mate because - as the scorpion said to the frog - it is her nature.

Admit it: Didn't you really hope it was Mo Dean?

Those of us who watched the televised Watergate hearings during the spring and summer of 1973 were mesmerized by Mo Dean, wife of John Dean, who served as President Nixon's counsel. She was beautiful, elegant and classy. The quintessential ice queen, she walked into the hearings with her blond hair swept into a neat bun and sat stoically as her husband implicated the president of the United States in the Watergate break-in.

Women admired her, men desired her. Even the name, Mo Dean, was a moniker made in Hollywood.

I can't say what her motivation might have been, but fantasies don't require a factual accounting. Instead, we're left speculating on what Felt's motivation was. Revenge for being passed over for the top FBI job? Contempt for the Nixon White House? Was he villain for breaking company rules against leaking, or hero for bringing down a corrupt presidency?

"Follow the money," Felt had told Woodward in helping him trace the burglars to the Oval Office. Now pundits are trying to trace what money Felt's family might make from the sale of his story, thereby answering the journalist's essential question, "Why now?"

Whatever mysteries remain, one thing we know about Felt that was surely beyond his or anyone's imagination 30 years ago. By his role in the Watergate saga, he fathered a generation of "gotcha journalists" and government conspiracy theorists, while institutionalizing the iconographic Anonymous Source, forevermore to be imagined as Deep Throat.

At the same time, Woodward and Bernstein virtually patented the boomer prototype of the caffeine-jazzed, anti-establishment investigative reporter, upon whom newbie reporters thereafter modeled themselves. But scoops were never quite as good, nor sources quite as sexy - at least in theory.

From flags posted in flowerpots to request a meeting, to parking garage rendezvous under cover of darkness; from raspy whispers through clouds of cigarette smoke to the raw heat of deadline and discovery, journalism was never more fun, nor victory against corruption ever again as sweet.

If only the throat had been a dame named Mo.