The Good Thief
On the evening of Aug. 8, 1974, some friends and I were driving to Hollywood to see the just-born stage version of the RockyHorrorShowat the Roxy when the news came on the radio that Richard Nixon was about to address the nation, with the expectation it would be his swan song, which was just ducky with us. We detoured to the Sunset and Vine Wallichs' Music City, where the scene was like an old-time movie: citizens crowded in to watch the historic sight of Nixon's five o'clock shadow spread across dozens of TV sets on the sales floor. His speech was classic cuspidor oratory, with Nixon painting himself as the bloodied gladiator striving in the arena. Quitting was "abhorrent to every instinct in my body," but he would do so for the good of the nation because he no longer had the "political base" to govern effectively, which was a nice way of saying that even those in his own party had become outraged by his thuggish and mendacious ways.
A local TV news crew arrived at Wallichs' to ask what the man on the street thought. In my hippie overalls and 'Nam boots, I was not the telegenic marvel I have since become, and I didn't get the chance to say what an absolute piece of shit I thought Nixon was, who had only considered "the good of the nation" after he'd thrown every underling he had to the wolves and his own impeachment was justly imminent.
Whatever. Praise or bury him, Nixon was gone from the Oval Office, Chevy Chase was sworn in, and democracy tottered onward. Watergate was one of the rare occasions when the public got to see the contempt with which it is often governed. There were dozens of criminal convictions of persons who'd held positions of high trust in Nixon's "law and order" administration. Even at this late date, revelations continue rolling in from the Nixon tapes, where we hear for ourselves just how wide the gap is between the words spoken on the podium and in the backroom.
Without Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, we might never have known any of this. Go ahead and besmirch his motives—as some people certainly are—but the truth remains: if Felt was indeed Deep Throat, or even a primary source for the WashingtonPost'srevelations about Nixon's crimes, he did this nation a precious service. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, and the only coin it recognizes is truth. If you're not privy to what your government is doing, it's not yourgovernment. You might as well live under a feudal lord, which is pretty much how Nixon ran the executive branch, using public institutions to consolidate his personal power and punish his political enemies.
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Robert "Rim Job" Novak now claims that he and others knew all along that Felt was Deep Throat. Nixon apparently had his suspicions, though on his clandestine White House tapes he's more interested in knowing if Felt might be a Catholic or a Jew. You cannot trust the Jews. They're crafty, and they'll turn on you every time, or so Nixon would mutter as he staggered drunk through the White House, blaming everyone but himself for his fate.
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I wonder sometimes if Nixon intended these tapes to be heard someday. Maybe there was enough of the honest Yorba Linda Quaker left in him to be appalled by the lightless depths into which he'd steered our democracy, and he wanted to post a warning for future generations. National politics was not for the faint-hearted. Nixon believed, not without cause, that electoral fraud had cost him the 1960 presidential race. Barry Goldwater, one of the most decent men in government, had been cruelly smeared by Lyndon Johnson's campaign in 1964. Nixon had always played hardball, and the competitor in him took it to the next level, and then a few more, right down to where you could smell the sulfur.
The depressing thing at the time of Watergate was how complacent most Americans were, writing it off as liberal hysteria or Washington business as usual. Anyone paying attention knew by November of 1972 that something exceptionally stinky was going on, yet America looked at George McGovern and re-elected Nixon by a landslide. But the Constitution and Bill of Rights are remarkable things, and, as Lenny Bruce noted, their tenets aren't there to protect criminals but to protect us from the likelihood that people in government easily become criminals. Unlike today, "moving on" wasn't the way America dealt with unpleasantness, and enough people kept the heat on until the separate branches of government worked as they should and justice was done.
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That wouldn't have happened without Deep Throat, so his identity remained a beguiling mystery for decades. Some thought it might be Al Haig, John Erlichman or even Ben Stein. My sentimental favorite was Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General and Nixon campaign director John Mitchell. She had a penchant for getting liquored up and talking to reporters. "I know dirty things," she confided once. "I sawdirty things." Shortly after the Watergate break-in, Mitchell called UPI reporter Helen Thomas from our very own glamorous Newporter Inn. Barely into the talk, Mitchell became agitated and shouted at persons unknown, "You get away! Just get away!" and the line went dead. Mitchell later claimed she'd been held down by five men while a hypo was stuck in her ass to sedate her. You just don't get service like that at the Newporter anymore.
Mitchell was subsequently diagnosed as delusional. Poor woman: psychiatry students today are cautioned about the "Martha Mitchell Effect"—of presuming someone is delusional when the outlandish thing they're describing is actually true. The Mitchells lived in the Watergate complex, and some have speculated that their apartment was the launch point for the burglars.
I only wish there were more persons drunk or patriotic enough to fall out of lock-step and join Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill in the realization that this White House is far, far creepier than Nixon's. Bush, for example, has been dismantling the environmental safeguards Nixon signed into law. And in his resignation speech, Nixon took the time to caution: "We must set as our goal not just limiting but reducing and finally destroying these terrible [nuclear] weapons so that they cannot destroy civilization and so that the threat of nuclear war will no longer hang over the world and the people." Bush, meanwhile, has backed out of nuclear treaties and is pursuing a new generation of nukes, which, oddly enough, has made other nations reluctant to curtail their nuclear programs.
In the same speech, Nixon said, "We must keep as our goal turning away from production for war, and expanding production for peace so that people everywhere on this earth can at last look forward in their children's time, if not in our own time, to having the necessities for a decent life." It's their children's time now, and more kids than ever are slipping into poverty or beyond, while Bush presides over the largest military budgets in our history, launched us into a baseless "preemptive" war and cut social programs here and abroad. The only way many American kids will ever afford college is by becoming fodder for Bush's war.
Then there's the extrajudicial incarceration, "extreme rendition" and torture occurring on his watch; the no-bid contracts and billions gone missing in Iraq; the millions of our tax dollars spent ramming Bush's un-Christian Christianity down our throats; the forged-in-secret energy policy; and the cloak that's draped over all White House policy. A whistleblower today better have strong lungs.
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Mark Felt is a strange sort of hero. At the FBI, he directed the Cointelpro program that conducted illegal break-ins, wiretaps and other activities against anti-war groups, student activists, Black Panthers and pretty much everyone to the left of J. Edgar Hoover's frilly underpants.
Whistleblowers are rare enough that you take 'em where you can find 'em. Some of the people now speaking out (including FBI agents) about the U.S. torture of detainees probably don't have blemish-free records either. But maybe they'd seen the values they grew up believing in slip to a degree they could no longer abide, and were moved to act. In my book, Felt is like the Good Thief who found his moral compass at the crucial moment. He and the other tarnished whistleblowers are far more moral than a nation that refuses to confront the evil done in its name.
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