The Secret Man by Bob Woodward

Who would Deep Throat cough to now?
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Some weeks ago, Deep Throat's identity was claimed by Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI. For the first time in nearly 30 years we learned who had provided Woodward with crucial information about the burglary of the Democratic headquarters in Washington's Watergate complex by people working for the Republican Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP), the president being Richard Nixon. In 1972, Felt swore Woodward to secrecy about his source, but, having outed himself as the mystery man, released the journalist to publish this memoir.

Several things make it an arresting book. For one thing it is distinctly unAmerican in having fewer than 250 pages, therefore not overwritten. Secondly, it reveals that President Nixon, suspecting Felt to be the Washington Post's source, wanted him brutally chastised, but was persuaded that this would cause the FBI number two to open his throat even further, with ghastly consequences for the White House and all who schemed therein.

It is also a thrilling flashback to a time of extraordinarily tenacious journalism by two "maverick" reporters whose work frequently was greeted with scorn and incredulity by their peers. They knocked on hundreds of doors, combed telephone directories, grabbed officialdom by its testicles, deposed a flagitious president and shocked an American public barely capable of accepting that their leader was, in his own famous denial, "a crook".

I know how thorough they were. Hearing that I and three British colleagues were racing to publish the first book about Watergate, they may have wondered if we had material they could have missed. Bernstein was dispatched to a bar we patronised, and swivelled his ears in our direction. But although our book, Watergate: The Full Inside Story, was first to hit the street and generously reviewed, it was quickly forgotten when Woodward and Bernstein's superior work, All The President's Men, finally appeared in print and later as a movie.

Possibly the most arresting - and disturbing - aspect of The Secret Man is the knowledge that, despite the heroic journalism that the two Post reporters practised and the emulative efforts of scores of subsequent practitioners, not only do dirty tricks remain at the core of presidential politics, but White House reporters are again less adversarial than they should be - other than baying en masse at unyielding White House press spokesmen. While New York magazine could write of the post-Watergate investigative reporter as "a new American folk hero", the American historian and columnist David Greenberg has detected (in his fine 2003 book, Nixon's Shadow) "easy opinion-mongering and bandwagon journalism" in the "scandal culture" which followed Watergate. The "moment of revival and heroism for American journalism was all too fleeting," he writes.

Similarly, the mood of intimidation - and often downright hatred - of the media which the Nixon administration deliberately fostered and which Woodward and Bernstein both documented and overcame, has returned to the US in the Bush administration, as in recent attempts to jail two reporters for refusing to name a government source on dirty tricks against an Iraq war critic.

The atmosphere of stink, hoodwink and double-think on George W Bush's watch doesn't (yet) compare with the criminality of the Nixon White House. So it required unique courage, or unique contumacy, to be Deep Throat. What prompted Mark Felt to feed secrets to Woodward? This book doesn't really provide a definitive answer. But personal frustration must have been one motive.

In 1972, J Edgar Hoover, the FBI's director of 48 years, died. Felt expected to succeed him and, given his shining record with the Bureau, was justified in doing so. Instead Nixon gave the job to Patrick Gray, a Nixon loyalist with no FBI experience. Yet it is clear that, alone, "thwarted ambition", as Woodward puts it, probably would not have opened the FBI throat were it not for a chance meeting three years earlier between Felt and Woodward, then about to leave the US Navy to seek a newspaper career. Subsequently cultivating a "paternal" Felt, the persistent Woodward was nicely placed to persuade Deep Throat to cough up the scoops that burnished that career beyond most expectations.