Exclusive: A Washington axiom holds that that when power and truth clash, power usually wins, but the contest can be complicated by competing personal agendas, as James DiEugenio notes about a new Watergate movie.
By James DiEugenio
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had two distinct advantages in putting their imprint on Watergate as the story’s principal heroes. First, timing: their book All the President’s Men was published in June 1974 before the scandal had run its course, indeed, before President Nixon resigned that August. Thus, they were out of the box before any rivals.
Second, they got sound advice: Robert Redford purchased the rights to their book when it was in the manuscript stage and he tilted its construction from a third-person objective view, to a first-person political adventure story to make the book more adaptable as a film. (The Secret Man, by Bob Woodward, p. 113)
Since the movie ended up being a big hit, this further enhanced the two reporters’ standing at the center of Watergate.
Redford’s influence also molded the use of an anonymous source who spoke on “deep background.” Hence, the memorable name given to him in the book, Deep Throat, an ironic play on the title of a pornographic movie that coincidentally was released just five days before five burglars working for Nixon’s campaign were captured inside the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building on June 17, 1972.
In 2005, in the pages of Vanity Fair, it was finally revealed that Mark Felt, the number-two man at the FBI, had been Deep Throat, a revelation that created a media firestorm and prompted another scramble for book and movie rights.
Yet, when Felt’s daughter Joan asked Woodward to co-author a book with her 91-year-old, ailing father, Woodward declined. Instead, he wrote his own book, The Secret Man, which beat Felt’s book (A G-Man’s Life co-authored by attorney John O’Connor) to the market by almost a year.
Woodward seemed to owe a great deal to Felt for his assistance as a Watergate source, yet in the book, Woodward went out of his way to demonstrate that Felt suffered from severe memory loss as early as 2000 when the reporter visited Felt after a lecture he gave in California.
The Mark Felt Movie
The movie took another ten years to get into production. Written and directed by Peter Landesman who wrote the script for the fine film about Gary Webb, Kill the Messenger, the current film bears the cumbersome title, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. It also does not approach the Webb film in quality. One reason is that Landesman was stuck with Felt as his main focus. And, as even Woodward tried to explain in The Secret Man, it is not easy to explain why Felt did what he did.
Previously, Woodward and Bernstein had maintained that Deep Throat was trying to shield the office of the presidency “to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.” (Woodward and Bernstein, p. 243) In 1992, journalist James Mann proffered the FBI defense concept. Mann, who correctly thought Deep Throat was Felt, theorized that the veteran FBI agent thought the White House would try to pull a power play on the Bureau to obstruct justice. (The Atlantic, May/92)
Then there is the careerist Inside-the-Beltway theory: Felt leaked in order to make acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray look bad, in hopes that Nixon would replace Gray with Felt. By 2005, even Woodward, in The Secret Man, acknowledged this was a distinct possibility.
What made the third motive — Felt’s drive to be named FBI Director — a possibility was that on May 2, 1972 (about six weeks before the Watergate break-in), longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was found dead in his home. A few days later, his lifelong friend and FBI colleague Clyde Tolson resigned his number-two position.
At that point, most FBI observers saw three men as the frontrunners to succeed Hoover: Felt, who was next in line in the FBI hierarchy; former number-three man Cartha DeLoach, who had retired in 1970 for a more lucrative job at Pepsi-Cola but was favored by Attorney General Richard Kleindienst; and former director of domestic intelligence William Sullivan, who had been forced into retirement by Hoover for insubordination the year before. [See L. Patrick Gray and Ed Gray, In Nixon’s Web, pgs. 16-17]
L. Patrick Gray was not on most lists. He had been part of a distinguished law firm in Connecticut and came to Washington in 1970 to work under Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Robert Finch. At the time of Hoover’s death, Gray was awaiting confirmation as Deputy Attorney General. But Nixon chose Gray as acting FBI director within 48 hours of Hoover’s death. The reason ostensibly was that by choosing someone from the outside, it would be easier to glide the person through the confirmation process to be permanent director. As an outsider, Gray was not tainted by the scandals that were beginning to erupt over the FBI’s COINTELPRO domestic spying.
So, among the enduring mysteries of Watergate were these two: what had motivated Felt to become Deep Throat and whether his and Woodward’s roles were as central to the scandal as All the President’s Men made them out to be. In discussing his film, Landesman has called All the President’s Men part of the “mythology” of Watergate and contended that the Woodward/Bernstein contribution to Watergate has been overrated: That the crisis was resolved by many more people than those two reporters gave credit to. Referring to the Woodward/Bernstein role, Landesman said, “It’s not even a big piece of the whole picture.”
There is also strong evidence that Felt, who died in 2008, was himself overrated as part of the mythology of the Woodward/Bernstein shaping of the story. But Landesman was not going to touch that angle because it would undercut the rationale for his film.
Since Landesman’s film was based on the Felt/O’Connor book, it also was never going to use the Shakespearean dramatic concept of Felt’s ambition to be FBI director as the character’s motivating factor. Yet, in contrast to All the President’s Men, Landesman does not focus on the notion that Felt was driven by the altruistic motive of preserving the sanctity of the White House. For the most part, Landesman portrays Felt as protecting the FBI from getting run over by the White House as part of a cover-up, a theme struck in the first major scene.
Felt is at the White House at some point before Hoover’s death talking to Attorney General John Mitchell and White House counsel John Dean about what it would take to convince Hoover to resign. The scene ends with Felt warning the White House that Hoover has secret files on everybody in Washington. Therefore, it would not be wise to press him to do something he really does not want to do.
The film also makes Gray the antagonist to Landesman’s hero Felt. So, after Hoover dies, the film has Gray asking for Hoover’s infamous Official and Confidential files that contain the dirt on Washington’s powerbrokers, but Felt arranges their destruction before they can fall into Gray’s hands. However, according to both a House committee investigation and Curt Gentry’s detailed biography of Hoover, that is not what happened. The destruction of the files was ordered by Tolson, and it went on for weeks after the files were transferred back to Hoover’s home. (Gentry, J. Edgar Hoover, pgs. 730-35)
Landesman’s second antagonist to Felt is William Sullivan, which leads to another case of dramatic license. In the Felt/O’Connor book, and in Landesman’s movie, Sullivan is meant to be the epitome of all that was bad with the FBI under Hoover. In the film, after Hoover’s funeral – but before Gray was appointed – there is a scene between Sullivan and Felt in which the two men discuss who would be the better successor.
Felt’s position was to defend Hoover’s practices and push many of the abuses off on Sullivan, such as wiretaps ordered up by then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger but which were approved by Hoover; and the letter to Martin Luther King Jr., suggesting he commit suicide, written by Sullivan but approved by Hoover. (Gentry, pgs. 571-72; 632-33) As Woodward notes, Felt even tried to defend Hoover’s years long campaign against King. (Woodward, The Secret Man, p. 43)
Once the film gets into Watergate, there are two aspects to the script that are notable. First, the main press representative that Felt begins leaking to is Sandy Smith of Time magazine, not Woodward. Indeed, Woodward takes up less than five minutes of screen time and Bernstein is not even a character in the film (making me wonder if this is part of the residue left over from Woodward’s rejection of Felt as a co-author in 2005). In the film, Smith, who Felt meets twice in a low-class diner, is clearly the main recipient of Felt’s leaking. Smith did get information from Felt and ran some significant stories on Watergate. (Felt and O’Connor, p. 198)
But this leads us to the key aspect of Landesman’s script. In its attempt to make Gray into a villain, the use of dramatic license gets extravagant. As John Dean has noted in his review of the O’Connor/Felt book, a lot of what Felt conveyed to Woodward turned out to be wrong. [New York Times, May 7, 2006] For instance, as Dean knows since he was White House counsel, the White House monitored the FBI investigation not through Gray but through Assistant Attorney General Henry Peterson. Yet, the message of this film is that Felt was a hero because Gray was, to say the least, not a very zealous investigator on the Watergate case.
Today, the problem with trying to sustain the story of Felt as truth-teller and Gray as at best a foot-dragger is that when Gray died in 2005, he was working on a Watergate book that his son Ed Gray completed. Patrick Gray kept cartons of handwritten notes during his year as acting FBI director, allowing his son to finish the book in 2008 and establish that Patrick Gray was not part of the cover-up. In reading through the notes, Ed Gray discovered that his father’s early thoughts about the break-in were remarkably acute. (See the notes depicted on pages 60 and 85)
Within 72 hours, after checking to see if the FBI had the primary jurisdiction in the case, he wrote an unequivocal order that as many agents and supervisors would be applied to Watergate to make sure that an “absolute, immediate, and imaginative investigation is conducted. All leads are to be set out by telephone and teletype as appropriate. Bureau to be aware of all leads.” (ibid, p. 63)
So, if you’re trying to cover up a crime, why would you ask that all leads be sent out by teletype and telephone which would distribute the information to a large number of agents? And, why would you also order as much manpower as necessary?
As the film progresses, the dramatic line portraying Gray as the bad guy was accentuated more and more. For instance, there is a scene in which Gray tells Felt that they have to wrap up the case in 48 hours, which is contradicted by the expansive order from Gray to his FBI subordinates. In Gray’s book, it is shown that it was White House adviser John Ehrlichman who gave the suggestion for an early wrap up to Peterson, and he refused it. (Gray p. 69)
The evidence suggests that one of Felt’s principal goals was to discredit Gray, in part, by spreading misinformation to Woodward, such as Felt’s description of a White House meeting at which Nixon informs Gray that he will be nominated as permanent FBI director. The third person at the meeting was Ehrlichman, who took notes. The conversation was also taped.
In one of the parking-garage meetings, Felt told Woodward that the conversation was all about Watergate, that Gray had told the White House about his containment strategy and wanted to be rewarded with appointment as permanent director, an account that Woodward and Bernstein published in their book. It never seemed to dawn on them that Felt couldn’t know this because he wasn’t there and had access to neither the taping system nor Ehrlichman’s notes. Gray’s lawyer called Woodward and requested they place an on-page rejoinder to this libel, which the publishers did. (Gray, p. 180) But the incident showed how unreliable Felt was about Gray.
John McDermott, who was the Special Agent in Charge of the Washington office from the fall of 1972 and later rose to number-three man in the Bureau, responded to Felt’s version of events in a private manuscript, writing that there was no evidence that the FBI’s inquiry was effectively sidelined by Gray or anyone else. Later, in a letter, he asked anyone to come forward with evidence to prove any suppression or diversion of the FBI’s inquiry. He concluded that if no one could do so then Felt’s accusation amounted to rubbish. (Letter to Craig Detlo, 11/1/2006)
The film’s climax is Gray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation to be permanent director. The film suggests that what sank his nomination was that he allowed John Dean to sit in on interviews the FBI did with White House employees. But that is not the whole story. Gray explained that because the White House was not a suspect in the crime, the employer legal privilege prevailed. And he noted that he also let lawyers from the Democratic National Committee sit in on interviews with their employees.
Whether or not that judgment was a good one, what really sank Gray’s nomination was a story that he leaked to Senator Lowell Weicker, a personal friend. Near the beginning of the Watergate scandal, Dean and Ehrlichman called Gray to the White House and gave him files from E. Howard Hunt’s safe. They told him these dealt with national security matters, not Watergate. Therefore, they should never see the light of day.
Gray believed them and eventually burned the files after only glancing at them. It turned out that one of the files dealt with Hunt’s attempt to forge State Department memos stating President Kennedy ordered the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The other file was Hunt’s attempt to dig up dirt on Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick Incident. Technically they did not have anything to do with Watergate. But the fact that Gray had incinerated evidence from Hunt’s White House safe – and that Hunt was implicated in the Watergate burglary – was too much for the mushrooming scandal. Gray called up President Nixon and said he was withdrawing his nomination.
The film shows Felt’s retirement ceremony and Nixon’s speech resigning the presidency, implying that Felt retired once he knew Nixon was forced to resign. But this is more dramatic license. Felt resigned a full year before Nixon stepped down and Felt’s retirement had nothing to do with Nixon’s resignation. Felt was forced out because the new FBI Director, William Ruckelshaus, suspected him of leaking more information about the Kissinger wiretaps, which may or may not have been the case. (Gray, p. 267)
Beyond the problems with the script, the film is executed in largely a pedestrian manner. Landesman should have looked at what director Michael Cuesta did in Kill the Messenger. In a film that was essentially a newspaper story, Cuesta applied some subtle and quiet cinematic techniques in order to make the story visually interesting and dramatically potent. I can’t say that about Landesman’s effort here. His direction is only one notch above what a television version of the film would be.
The one exception was Liam Neeson’s performance as Felt. Except for Schindler’s List, Neeson has never gotten much opportunity to show what a good actor he is. But here he is both solid and subtle. He never strikes a false move and never forces anything. It’s a controlled, quiet performance that is clearly the best in the film.
There’s also a larger historical issue that goes unaddressed, the connection between Nixon’s 1968 sabotage of President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks and Nixon’s panic over a file containing evidence of what Johnson called Nixon’s “treason,” a file that disappeared from the White House with Johnson’s departure in January 1969. Nixon, who was informed about the existence of the file by Hoover, grew increasingly concerned in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers which chronicled the Vietnam War lies up to 1967.
What Nixon knew was that there was a potentially more explosive sequel detailing his own treachery that may have extended the war several years. Amid the furor over the Pentagon Papers, Nixon ordered Howard Hunt to create a team to finally locate the file and even considered breaking into the Brookings Institution where some Nixon aides thought the file might be hidden. Hunt’s team later undertook a number of other black-bag operations including the Watergate break-in, but never found the file, which actually was in the possession of Johnson’s last National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Heinous Crime Behind Watergate.”]
So, the more we learn about Watergate the more we can see that it was in some ways a drama of different people’s hidden agendas being played off against other people’s agendas. One of those players was Bob Woodward. Another was Mark Felt. For dramatic reasons, Robert Redford wanted to exalt the role of the former. For his own artistic reasons, Landesman wants to make Mark Felt the hero of his 2017 revisionist version. For this reviewer, this just substitutes one dubious protagonist for another.
James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.