The Secret Man
Spoiler alert! Read no further if you haven’t heard that Deep Throat, the man who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reveal the Watergate conspiracy that brought down Richard Nixon, was FBI second-in-command W. Mark Felt. Beyond that, if you’re hungry for news, The Secret Man, Woodward’s awkward, overstretched account of his encounters with Felt, may disappoint you. Looking for specifics? Well, you’ll learn how Felt taught Woodward to avoid being followed to their meetings in an underground garage. (Hint: It helps to be careful.) Eager for psychological insights? ”There was little tendency or time to consider the motive of our sources,” warns the author, who later elaborates (sort of): ”I am disappointed and a little angry at both myself and him for never digging out a more exacting explanation” of those motives. As for juicy secrets, there are so few that I can’t swear Woodward tells us what the ”W.” in Felt’s name stands for.
Here’s the surprise: None of that matters. The Secret Man is a stirring, sometimes even moving book, a lucid footnote to All the President’s Men that, in its very stiffness and honorable refusal to push beyond facts into guesswork, reminds us that the world is remade by flawed, ordinary men as often as by heroes. And since history is written by the victors, you can’t expect narrative dynamism when the plodders defeat the plotters.
As soon as Felt’s identity was revealed last May, the right’s cadre of professional blabbermouths — nattering neo-nabobs of negativism — sought to discredit him as a revenge-seeker sullen about his inability to get the FBI’s top job. (In some quarters, character assassination never goes out of style.) But the Felt who emerges here is a cipher whose reasons finally mattered less than his actions, which were to expose criminality. Woodward contrasts that shadow figure with a modest self-portrait of an unseasoned, often stymied young reporter trudging through a tough story and working (and overworking) a source who intimidated him. It’s easy to twit this patchy account for its meanderings and rehashes. It’s harder to smirk when one tallies the number of journalists who owe their decision to enter the profession in part to Woodward.
And it is, of course, impossible to read Secret Man as anything but a ringing defense of the importance of confidential sources, and to wonder what turns history might have taken if Felt — who the author makes clear protected his identity with a fierce and wily instinct for self-preservation — had stayed silent. Woodward, always the dutiful reporter, never the analyst, doesn’t speculate; he doesn’t even use the ”aggressive, interpretive language” that he admits made its way into the Post‘s Watergate stories. But he’s smart enough to leave us with one great, wrenching scene: a visit with Felt, by then in his late 80s and suffering from dementia. Woodward tries to tease memories out of his failing source, but they’re gone. Deep Throat, who spent 30 years hiding from the world, is lost even to himself. And Woodward is left to tell the small part of the story that he can, with a subject who remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a really good nickname.