Thursday, February 14, 2013

An inconvenient book (Part One)

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Part two: The problem with sources

Max Holland’s Leak might have been the most important book published in 2012. Combining painstaking research with a dogged determination to separate fact from myth, Leak is a careful examination of Mark Felt and his role in Watergate.

As Holland points out, such an examination is long overdue:

"As Christopher Hitchen's wrote in his review of The Secret Man, Watergate 'ranks as the single most successful use of the news media by an anonymous unelected official with an agenda of his own.’ Without a consensus about what that agenda was, there is a gaping hole in the center of the narrative."
For decades, the conventional portrayal of Mark Felt was Hal Holbrook in All the President’s Men. Deep Throat had no agenda beyond truth, justice, and the American Way. He talked to Bob Woodward because he had no choice: leaking to the Washington Post was the only way to stop Nixon and his minions from subverting the Constitution.

Holland shows that almost nothing about this picture is true. Felt had an agenda and it had nothing to do with revulsion at Nixon’s tactics. Deep Throat was a combatant in “The War of the FBI Succession.” Felt wanted to replace J. Edgar Hoover and he was angry that Nixon had appointed L. Patrick Gray as Acting Director after Hoover died.

Deep Throat’s leaks, then, were not a desperate attempt to reveal the truth. They were, instead, just part of the usual Washington game in which bureaucrats use reporters to undercut their rivals.

"Pushing Gray to do the right thing, in other words, cost Felt nothing but was bound to hurt Gray. And there is some evidence that Felt was simultaneously communicating to the White House that everything would be different if he were the director-- that he could accomplish what Gray was either unwilling or incapable of doing."
Holland has described Felt as an “Iago type character” in his relationship with L. Patrick Gray and the evidence supports that characterization. During the day Felt was the loyal G-Man helping his new boss stop the leaks which were driving the White House crazy (and jeopardizing Gray’s career prospects.) At night, Felt was leaking to his favorite reporters in order to undercut Gray and his other rivals for the top job.

That is reporters--plural. Felt did not start leaking after Watergate. He was an accomplished player in that game and fed information to multiple journalists.

This books shatters many of the myths and illusions that surround Watergate. It raises serious questions for both journalists and historians. Sadly, journalists have mostly ignored this book. As Holland notes, they have chosen to follow the lead of the editor in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

CSPAN has video of several talks Holland gave on this book, Mark Felt, and Watergate history. See here.


Daniel in Brookline said...

By "doffed", did you perhaps mean "dogged"?

(Sorry, I'm a compulsive proofreader.)

craig said...

Thanks, i fixed it.

I'm lousy at proof-reading on a screen.