Oedipus Bob

It’s no picnic being Bob Woodward’s daddy.

Miss Bordereau stood there in her nightdress, in the doorway of her room, watching me; her hands were raised, she had lifted the everlasting curtain that covered half her face, and for the first, the last, the only time I beheld her extraordinary eyes. They glared at me, they made me horribly ashamed. I never shall forget her strange little bent white tottering figure, with its lifted head, her attitude, her expression; neither shall I forget the tone in which as I turned, looking at her, she hissed out passionately, furiously:

“Ah, you publishing scoundrel!”

I know not what I stammered, to excuse myself, to explain; but I went toward her, to tell her I meant no harm. She waved me off with her old hands, retreating before me in horror; and the next thing I knew she had fallen back with a quick spasm, as if death had descended on her, into Miss Tita’s arms.

—Henry James, The Aspern Papers

It’s common for reporters to refer to their sources as “my friend.” In a now-famous Atlantic essaypublished in 1992, James Mann, who worked at the Washington Post 30-odd years ago, writes that in the months after the Watergate break-in, “Woodward spoke to me repeatedly of ‘my source at the FBI,’ or, alternatively, of ‘my friend at the FBI.’ ” Mann writes that at the time, he and Woodward were friends, and in The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, Woodward explains that Mann actually helped him get hired at the Post. After Mann left the Post for the Los Angeles Times, the two settled into “one of those relationships that includes lunch every other year or so.”

But Woodward felt betrayed by Mann’s piece. He writes, “I seriously doubt I said this, and I hope I was more careful.” It’s a formulation Woodward uses more than once in the book, and by this point in the narrative the reader has come to understand that it translates, “I don’t want to believe that I shot off my mouth like this, but I guess I did. How embarrassing.” After the Atlantic piece came out, the two old friends’ annual lunches stopped. In using his friend Woodward as a “friend,” or source, Mann had soured what was left of their actual friendship.

The Secret Man is an exploration of Woodward’s relationship with Mark Felt, his “friend” par excellence, and like all Woodward books it’s kind of a jigsaw puzzle. Woodward lays out, in meticulous detail, everything you need to know and then refuses to explain what it all adds up to. In most of Woodward’s books, I believe, Woodward is consciously playing dumb in order not to tick off his sources. Sometimes, though, Woodward just doesn’t get it. The Secret Man falls into the latter category, which is poignant, because what Woodward doesn’t get is his own heart.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say Woodward half gets it. As I noted earlier  (when the Washington Post ran an excerpt from the book), Woodward is not one to hide anybody’s dirty linen, including his own. (I have since withdrawn one charge against Woodward: Apparently he did not invent Deep Throat’s cigarette-smoking in order to disguise his identity.) In The Secret Man, Woodward writes, “I was pushy, secretive, I used Mark Felt, and I lied to a colleague, Richard Cohen.” Woodward told Cohen Felt wasn’t Deep Throat. (Oddly, Woodward doesn’t address the matter of having lied to J. Anthony Lukas in a 1979 Playboy interview when he denied that Deep Throat came from the “intelligence community.” But I digress.)

Woodward even states forthrightly that, like Ben Bradlee, “Mark Felt had in some respects been an extra father.” Woodward notes that Felt was his father’s age, and both men were lawyers. What Woodward doesn’t seem to grasp—and what I didn’t realize until I’d read the entire book—is the amount of aggression he directed toward dear old dad.

What reporters routinely do to sources is no way to treat a friend. (Think about it: Even assuming the reporter gets it right, do you really want millions of people to learn the unvarnished truth about you?) The relationship can still be mutually advantageous at the professional level; Mark Felt wanted the Nixon White House to get its mitts off his beloved FBI, and by leaking to Woodward, he achieved that goal. But (as Janet Malcolm has written, accurately if melodramatically) on a more human level, reporters do tend to sell out their “friends.” Felt told Woodward not to source anything he confirmed to the FBI; Woodward did so. Felt told Woodward never to quote him, even anonymously; Woodward did so. Felt told Woodward the very fact of their conversations had to be secret, but Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote Felt into All the President’s Men, described anonymously as Deep Throat, to liven up the narrative. It was the right thing to do for the book, and for the truth, but it was the wrong thing to do to Felt.

Woodward expresses mild guilt about these infractions. I don’t judge Woodward for committing them; a writer’s first loyalty is to his reader. But Woodward continued to maintain a non-utilitarian desire to seek Felt’s approval, and in doing so he expressed what looks to me like unconscious sadism. After All the President’s Men was released, Woodward was “dying to know what [Felt] thought.” So he phoned him, and, of course, Felt hung up on him, no doubt thinking, “I’m supposed to congratulate you for screwing me over?” Woodward, meanwhile, was thinking (he writes), “Hanging up was worse than any words he might have uttered. … What was the storm he was living? I wondered. How much was directed at me?” None of your business, pal! It’s not like you’d take any of it back.

In 1976, when Felt is getting nailed (appropriately) for authorizing break-ins of the homes of family members and friends of Weather Underground radicals without a judge’s warrant, Woodward writes a front-page story “that undercut part of Felt’s defense.” The way Woodward describes it, he isn’t assigned to cover Felt; he just sees that it’s a “big story,” and “jumped into the fray.” There’s a certain coldblooded clarity in Woodward’s decision: I’m a reporter, he’s a story, and screw everything else. But spare us further pious declarations of filial attachment. No such luck; that’s exactly what Woodward proceeds to dish out. He insists that his story undercutting Felt’s defense doesn’t add to Felt’s troubles, because “[Attorney General] Kleindienst was going to say it elsewhere.” If it hadn’t been me disemboweling daddy, it would have been somebody else. Look, daddy! Didn’t I do a nice job?

Felt is indicted (appropriately). Woodward phones him.

I said I was truly sorry that it had come to this.He sounded, or acted, as if he did not recognize my name or my voice, as if I were some stranger or caller voicing sympathy.”Thank you,” he said with a dry edge to his voice.I tried to break through, saying something like, “Bob Woodward, Bob Woodward, you know, from the Washington Post.”I believe he groaned.Repeating myself, I said I was sorry. I realized that I was only trouble in his life. I had wanted to see if there was some way to square his disgust with Nixon’s break-ins and his own actions. Hadn’t he taken the national security worry too far? I wanted to ask. But he was in no mood to talk or spar with me.

This isn’t an interview; it’s just harassment. Leave the poor man alone!

Felt is convicted (appropriately). Woodward phones him. By this point, the reader is wondering when Felt is going to slap a restraining order on the Washington Post’s most famous reporter. Woodward tells Felt he’s sorry about the verdict. Felt points out that the Washington Post has that day published an editorial calling the prosecution “essential” and saying the case is “a landmark that should deter future policemen from overreaching their legal authority.” Woodward says I’m a reporter, I don’t write editorials. But of course Woodward doesn’t say that the editorial is wrong, because it’s dead right. He merely pretends that, being a member of the “news” tribe rather than the “editorial” tribe, he’s unequipped to have any opinion at all. Insanely, Woodward then suggests that Felt, who is awaiting sentencing, come out of the closet as Deep Throat. Felt points out, correctly, that this would simply demonstrate to the judge that the jury was correct in concluding Felt was out of control.

Finally, Felt is a senile old man. Woodward comes to see him. Felt is actually glad to see him, which may simply be evidence of dementia. Woodward grills him, finds Felt can remember almost nothing save the title of his memoir (The FBI Pyramid), and eventually Felt tells him to go away. As a reader, I’m mildly grateful that Woodward made this journalistic effort for the book, and I won’t deny that his portrait of a once-powerful man reduced to this pathetic state has some prurient interest. But Woodward can’t let go of the idea that this is a sentimental reunion.

I realized I had one strong feeling toward Mark Felt. And that feeling was gratitude. He not only helped me on Watergate. He had showed me the way to develop relationships of trust for my reporting.

In truth, Felt hadn’t “shown” Woodward anything. He had merely been the person on whom Woodward had practiced the techniques of his trade—techniques that Woodward employs better than almost anyone else. Now Woodward is going to make another bundle rushing into print Felt’s story, and he isn’t going to share the money with Felt. Nobody would ever expect Woodward to share it. It would probably, in fact, be unethical for Woodward to share it. But would you treat your daddy this way?

Friendship is friendship, and sourceship is sourceship, and never the twain shall meet.