Watergate serves as the template of most modern political dramas


Opinion: One by one, the landmark epics of the 1970s are tying up the loose ends - alas, not always in ways that quite support the great mythic power attached to them.

In Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas brings the Star Wars cycle to a close by revealing how Anakin Skywalker went over to the Dark Side, transformed himself into Darth Vader, destroyed the Republic and consigned it to the mad imperial ambitions of Chancellor Palpatine - all because, er, he was a bit worried his beloved Senator Padme might die in childbirth. If Senator Padme had been like her fellow senator, Hillary Clinton, and had a socialised healthcare reform bill ready to roll, history might have been very different.

But Revenge of the Sith is a marvel of motivational integrity compared to "Revenge of the Felt", the concluding chapter in that other 1970s saga, Watergate. Before the final denouement last week, there had been a gazillion guesses at the identity of "Deep Throat", but all subscribed to the basic contours of the Woodward and Bernstein myth - that he was someone deep in the bowels of the Nixon administration who could no longer in good conscience stand by as a corrupt president did deep damage to the nation.

Now we learn that Deep Throat was not, in fact, Alexander Haig, Pat Buchanan or any other Nixon insider, but the FBI's Mark Felt, a disaffected sidekick of J Edgar Hoover, an old-school G-man embittered at being passed over for the director's job when the big guy keeled over after half-a-century in harness. And, whatever Mr Felt's motives, it wasn't because of a distaste for illegal break-ins: at the FBI, he himself had authorised illegal burglaries at the homes of friends and family of various leftists.

Oh, dear. Like the Star Wars wrap-up, "How Mark Felt Became Deep Throat" feels small and mean after three decades of the awesome dramatic burden placed upon it. The nobility of the All The President's Men narrative - in which media boomers and generations of journalism-school ethics bores have invested so much - seems cheapened and tarnished by this last plot twist.

The best thing I read on the subject in the last few days was a 1992 piece by James Mann from the Atlantic Monthly.

He doesn't identify Deep Throat, though he mentions Mark Felt in an important context.

But get a load of this remarkably shrewd paragraph from 13 years ago: "By coincidence, the Watergate break-in occurred on June 17, less than seven weeks after Hoover's death and [ FBI outsider] Gray's appointment [ as acting director]. The FBI took charge of the federal investigation at the same time that the Administration was trying to limit its scope. Therein lies the origin of Deep Throat."

Bingo! Mr Mann also adds: "Rarely is it asked whether White House aides like Haig, Ziegler, and Garment [ all rumoured to be Deep Throat over the years] were the sort of people willing to hold 2am meetings in a parking garage, or whether they were able to arrange the circling of the page number 20 of Bob Woodward's copy of the New York Times, which was delivered to his apartment by 7am - the signal that Deep Throat wanted a meeting."

With the benefit of hindsight, Mr Mann's observation seems obvious. That's what the spy novelists call "tradecraft". It's the sort of thing spooks and Feds do, not White House aides. Why then was it not so obvious for the last three decades?

The answer is that, thanks to All The President's Men, the media took it for granted they were America's plucky, heroic crusaders, and there's no point being plucky, heroic crusaders unless you've got the dark, sinister forces of an all-powerful government to pluckily crusade against. Think how many conspiracy movies there've been in which White House aides are the sort of chaps who think nothing of meeting you at 2am in parking garages, usually as a prelude to having you whacked. In films like Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power or Kevin Costner's No Way Out, political appointees carry on like that routinely. That image of government derives principally from the Nixon era.

Yet, as the unveiling of Deep Throat confirms, Tricky Dick's downfall was mostly an accumulation of trivial errors. Earlier this year, I chanced to look at both the transcripts of the original Nixon tapes, typed up by his long-time secretary, Rose Mary Woods, and the later material released in the 1990s, typed up by researchers and scholars who understood the historical significance of what they were dealing with. The latter fellows left in the "ers" and "ums", the stumbles and mumbles; when you read the conversations, the sense is of an administration floundering to stay on top of things. Unfortunately, when Miss Woods typed up the first Nixon tapes, she approached it as any good secretary would: she cleaned up the stumbles and "ers" and put everything into proper complete sentences. That's what you want in a secretary if you're dictating a letter to the Rotary Club.

But it was a disaster for Nixon: the cool clinical precision of the language makes the president's inner circle sound far more conspiratorial, ruthless and viciously forensic than the incoherent burble of the actual conversation.

The marking-page-numbers- in-the- morning-paper stuff cemented that impression - of the national government as one huge, out-of-control rogue spook operation.

Now it turns out that Deep Throat was merely a career law-enforcement official leaking information about the target of an investigation. Nothing very unusual about that - around the world, rinky-dink police departments and local prosecutors do it every day of the week - and, being so routine, there's nothing very heroic about it either. Especially when the man doing it is driven by personal pique and loyalty to J Edgar Hoover, a figure whose place in liberal demonology comes only just below Nixon.

If Rose Mary Woods had been less of a bowdleriser, if Hoover had lived another year, things might have gone very differently.

If the bloom's belatedly off the rose, Woodward, Bernstein and a pompous, self-regarding US media got a grand three-decade run out of Deep Throat and Watergate.

As it is, the best take on Deep Throat comes not from the Washington Post but from LBJ's old aphorism on Mark Felt's boss J Edgar Hoover: it's better to have him inside the tent, ah, leaking out than outside the tent leaking in.If only Nixon had kept Mark Felt inside the tent.