Seeking a place in Watergate history

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joe Lowther won oratory contests at Holy Cross University, parachuted into France on D-Day and became a tough Justice Department prosecutor.

He was devoted to his wife, took memorable fishing trips, owned a red Cadillac convertible and a house on the water in Royal Oak on the Eastern Shore.

Despite a gruff demeanor, he had close friends who respected his intellect.

But he wanted more.

As he saw death approaching, he wanted to be remembered as a source for the Watergate news stories that brought down an American president.

Mr. Lowther, who died April 11 at age 78, lost his high government post, in part, because he talked to reporters during the Watergate investigation.

He thought the case was being mishandled and for the rest of his life remained incensed at what he considered the misuse of power that, once exposed, led Richard M. Nixon to resign in 1974.

Mr. Lowther's proud assertion of a role in all this, made virtually on his deathbed, shows once again how deeply Watergate affected Americans' faith in their government. Coming so near to Mr. Nixon's death last month, his concern seemed especially poignant.

While prominent figures were willing to subvert the election system by breaking into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, other Americans resisted -- by telling reporters what they knew at some risk to their careers.

Sirica was his boss

At the time, Mr. Lowther was administrator of the U.S. District Courts in Washington, D.C. His boss was Chief Judge John J. Sirica, the man who would handle the Watergate case.

One of Mr. Lowther's closest confidants then, and at the time of his death, was Rockville lawyer Thomas M. O'Malley.

They met in 1959 when both were assistant U.S. attorneys for the District of Columbia. Two of Mr. O'Malley's sons, Martin, now a Baltimore City councilman, and Peter, share their father's curiosity about Mr. Lowther's role.

"The important thing for me was being with him at the end," Thomas O'Malley said. He and Peter had gone to visit Mr. Lowther shortly before his death in Pompano Beach, Fla. And they talked again about Watergate.

For years, Mr. O'Malley has believed Mr. Lowther was Deep Throat, the source whose information and guidance helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through difficult moments of their investigation. The famous name was conferred upon the source by an editor at the Post, and the reporters used it in their book about the investigation, "All the President's Men."

Mr. O'Malley wrote a play based on the premise that Joe Lowther was Deep Throat.

And, indeed, with his health failing and his friend at hand, Mr. Lowther said he was Deep Throat.

"I had access to information that I passed along to them that no one else had," he said in an interview with The Sun about two weeks before he died. But he was not able to offer proof of his claim.

Mr. Lowther was not Deep Throat, Mr. Woodward said recently. He confirmed that Mr. Lowther did provide information during the investigation. He recalled meeting him on a street, then driving around while Mr. Lowther talked.

"There were people down there [at the courthouse] and particularly later on who were calling us," he said. "You talked to anyone and everyone."

Mr. Woodward said he could not remember what Mr. Lowther had told him. But he said he was certain that it didn't lead to any major development. Nevertheless, he said, every bit of information had importance in the investigative "process."

In the book, Deep Throat is depicted as a person who repeatedly conveyed the most critical information about developments in the White House and in the investigative agencies.

A 'fourth tier' source

If Watergate sources were classified as to importance, Mr. Woodward said, Joe Lowther was probably in the "fourth tier."

During an interview at the nursing home where he spent the last years of his life, the frail man with the walker explained why he took the risks he did.

"I was trying to get Sirica to push the Watergate trial up and he wouldn't do it," Mr. Lowther said, speaking in a rasping drum of a voice.

"I was trying to get it done before the election because I was convinced the Republicans were a bunch of thieves, and I wanted them out."

He was one of those in the courthouse who thought Judge Sirica, a Republican appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, should not have assigned himself the case. Having done it, he should have been pushing harder, Mr. Lowther thought.

He said he made these feelings clear to others in the court and to the judge. "I said, 'You could be a star of the judiciary if you would please land on these . . . defendants.' He didn't appreciate that," Mr. Lowther said.

Maureen "Mike" Stewart, Mr. Lowther's secretary, confirms that her boss was an outspoken critic of the judge.

Immediately after the break-in, she said, he insisted "something else was going on." He felt the case was being allowed to slide and was deliberately confined to the burglars. At that point, they had not been linked to President Nixon's re-election committee or to the White House.

"He thought there was more to it," she said. "It just stuck in his craw."

It was about this time that Mr. Lowther began to act erratically. A physician diagnosed him as a manic depressive and said he probably had been one all his life.

Mr. Lowther had run-ins with police -- speeding and lying down beside his car on the shoulder of a highway, and he brought a handgun to work, according to Judge Sirica's clerks, Richard Azzaro and Todd Christofferson.

This behavior and an awareness that Mr. Lowther had spoken to reporters led to an extraordinary meeting of Judge Sirica's staff at the judge's house in spring 1973.

After initial denials, Mr. Azzaro said, Mr. Lowther acknowledged to Judge Sirica that some of the concerns were legitimate. Mr. Azzaro declined to say in detail what transpired at the meeting, citing a pledge of secrecy he made to Judge Sirica, who died in 1992.

After the meeting, Joe Lowther left the court.

Despite Mr. Lowther's removal from any official role -- and presumably from channels of information -- Mr. O'Malley remains convinced that his friend was Deep Throat.

"The parallels between him and Deep Throat cannot be by chance," Mr. O'Malley said. "He was completely immersed in the case. He had access to many people in the FBI, the CIA, the Watergate grand jury and others."

The booming voice and similarities in physical appearance and gestures between the man he knew and the source described as Deep Throat also convince Mr. O'Malley, even in the face of Mr. Woodward's denial.

Like Deep Throat, Joe Lowther was an educated, impatient, chain-smoking Scotch drinker. But Mr. Woodward says in the book that he had known his source for years before Watergate, while Mr. Lowther says he met Mr. Woodward after the break-in.

There can be little doubt that Mr. Lowther cared deeply about the integrity of the court and the law. He and Mr. O'Malley resented what they perceived as shortcomings on Judge Sirica's part and what Mr. Lowther called his "dilatory" approach.

But if Judge Sirica took on a historic case without benefit of a distinguished career, he emerged from Watergate as one of the most important judges of the century and a hero for his tenacious pursuit of the truth.

Mr. Lowther predicted that outcome and may have helped to make it happen.

While people have wondered for years about the motives of the (( source called Deep Throat, Joseph Anthony Lowther's motives were clear:

"If I could just think that I did something good for my country, I'd love it," he said.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°