Source reflected the era

WASHINGTON -- When investigative reporter Bob Woodward wanted to meet "Deep Throat," he'd move a flowerpot with a red flag to the rear of his apartment balcony.

Even more mysteriously, when his top-secret source wanted to meet him, Woodward would open his New York Times, check Page 20 and look for a hand-drawn clock to tell him when to rendezvous at an underground parking garage.

Even now, it seems like detail from a corny potboiler. But in the 1970s, with public skepticism of the government peaking, it did not seem paranoid to take such extreme precautions to avoid detection.

The Vietnam War was going badly. Protesters were filling the streets. A presidential campaign was raging. There were lingering suspicions over the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

"There was a powerful feeling of cynicism and skepticism about the government," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian now working on a book about President Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, former secretary of State. "There was a kind of pot that was brewing with all these unpleasant doubts and questions."

W. Mark Felt, who was revealed Tuesday as Deep Throat, did not single-handedly bring down the Nixon administration. But he helped. And when he was dubbed Deep Throat in the book "All the President's Men" by Woodward and fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein — and played by actor Hal Holbrook in the movie of the same name — he became a symbol of one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. political history.

As the No. 2 official at the FBI, Felt was helping to lead the federal investigation of the June 17, 1972, break-in and illegal wiretapping at Watergate, an apartment complex overlooking the Potomac River that served as the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

He apparently fended off attempts to shut down the investigation. In a 1979 book, he recounted how he persuaded the acting FBI director to continue looking into a Mexican bank account that supplied funds for the Watergate burglars, despite CIA objections that the inquiry might damage national security.

But he also was leaking information to the Washington Post, providing direction, confirming or denying information and sometimes encouraging Woodward and Bernstein to push harder in their investigation.

The story behind a Post article that ran Sept. 18, 1972, just days after the indictment of seven Watergate burglars, illustrated Deep Throat's role.

At the time, the White House had dismissed the incident as the work of a rogue group whose importance was being exaggerated by Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern.

But Woodward and Bernstein continued to chase the origin of the money that paid for the bugging and break-in at Watergate. Bernstein talked with a Justice Department official, and then a bookkeeper for the Committee to Reelect the President.

On the basis of that reporting, the men wrote the first paragraph of a story suggesting that top Nixon officials were involved in funneling money to the burglars. Woodward then called Deep Throat — apparently Felt — read him the story, and asked for his reaction.

"Too soft," Deep Throat told Woodward, according to "All the President's Men." "You can go much stronger."

Two days later, after further reporting, the men wrote the Sept. 18 story. It reported that two of Nixon's top campaign officials had financed the wiretapping operations from a secret political fund.

It was the first story that provided a concrete indication that burglary and bugging was a small piece of a larger puzzle, one that extended to the White House.

The expanding revelations were met with resistance in many quarters. Despite growing public suspicion, it was difficult to believe that anyone in the presidency, much less Nixon, had anything to do with a "third-rate burglary."

"Most of us could not believe that the president of the United States could be involved in illegality or corruption," said Jack Nelson, the former Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote an October 1972 story that was a first-person account of a former FBI agent who participated in the wiretapping. "Of course, it turned out to be true."

Despite the growing revelations, Nixon won re-election in November 1972 by a landslide. McGovern had not been a particularly skillful candidate. Nixon could count foreign policy successes like opening relations with China. And the public was not convinced that Nixon was involved in Watergate.

But the Watergate scandal would not die. By May 1973, prodded by the newspaper revelations, the Senate had begun its investigation. "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee asked famously as the nation watched on television, transfixed.

By July, Nixon was refusing to turn over tape recordings of conversations that eventually revealed his knowledge of the operation and the cover-up. A year later, the Supreme Court ordered the tapes turned over, and the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment.

"The tapes proved him a liar," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Washington lawyer who headed the Watergate Task Force of the Watergate special prosecutor's office from 1973 to 1975. "It could not have been more clear that people should not necessarily take the word of the president."

Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974. The next day, Vice President Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office. Minutes later, he declared an end to one of the darkest chapters in America's history with words that have entered the lexicon.

Said Ford: "Our long national nightmare is over."

A generation later, many Americans don't know much about Deep Throat or Watergate. At the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda on Tuesday, Rachael Cheng, 36, who emigrated from Taiwan in 1997 and now lives in Rowland Heights, admitted that she'd never heard of Deep Throat. "I don't know the story very well," she said.

Others, however, were impressed by Tuesday's news.

"The No. 2 FBI guy — wow!" exclaimed Janyce Rudisel, 63, of Garden Grove. "He did a great service. I never thought it would be somebody from the FBI."

Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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