The Washington Post had often described its widely-lauded Watergate reporting as “the first draft of history.” This implies, of course, that as current events become history, able historians will examine this draft, while curating ignored, concealed, newly uncovered and emerging evidence, in order to assess the continuing viability of the information in the first draft and refine the truth for our history texts. 

But what if the original draft was so widely praised, to the point of being taught as a revered staple of modern journalism, that its charter of legitimacy becomes unchallenged? What if, as a result, no aspiring historian dare contradict clear errors, indeed, falsehoods, in the original journalism? The result would be false history, embedded in our textbooks and, yes, causing our democracy to die in darkness. 

This is precisely what is happening today in Watergate studies, as a new wave of historians are armed with hundreds of thousands of post-scandal documents, books and articles. Rather than using these resources to advance Western society’s understanding of its most impactful political scandal and its celebrated iconic journalism, historians have done just the opposite. The common trope during the Watergate investigation was “It’s the coverup, not the crime.” It is therefore richly ironic that historians celebrating a touted busting of a Nixonian coverup, in the name of truth and candor, themselves are covering up for the Washington Post’s palpable and widespread deceits. How so?

The scope of this article limits us to one well-developed example. Please recall that the most dramatic scene in the bestselling book and hit movie, All the President’s Men, portrayed an agitated Deep Throat as bursting into the garage meeting, lips quivering, exclaiming to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, “Everyone’s life is in danger!” The CIA, he explained, was not so much worried about its implication in Watergate as it was its years of “incredible” domestic cover operations, which, given the CIA charter, would all be illegal, with jail and loss of pensions in the offing. In essence, Deep Throat was telling Woodward that the CIA was involved in Watergate and was afraid that its uncovering there would reveal far more illegality in decades past, without the tincture of presidential approval it could plausibly claim in Watergate. 

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However, if the Washington Post had reported this tableau contemporaneously, attention would have immediately been averted from the targeted, hated Nixon, to a rogue agency that had infiltrated the White House and the presidential campaign, and, to boot, had been acting illegally for decades, shredding citizens’ civil rights. Focus on the CIA would also lead to the seamy underbelly of the DNC, which was engaged in the meretricious activity that so engaged the agency in this affair. 

As a result, the Washington Post concealed this frightening, highly meaningful episode from its readers. However, reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein could not resist inserting this dramatic event in their book and movie, to their profit, while downplaying its ultimate significance as simply an overreaction of Deep Throat. But now that we know that Deep Throat was no easily mistaken amateur, but Mark Felt, the savvy, experienced head of the entire FBI Watergate investigation, a responsible researcher ignores Deep Throat’s bona fides at his peril.

To be sure, Deep Throat in the May 1973 garage meeting also recounted certain facts that likely came from the now-cooperating White House counsel, John Dean, including an attempt ten months earlier in which the Oval Office asked the CIA to call the FBI off on false pretenses of the “Mexican money trail” investigation. But this had nothing to do with his warning that lives were in danger at the hands of the CIA, presumably those of witnesses who were planning on fingering the agency. 

Mark Felt, as the head of the FBI Watergate investigation in May 1973, had not only known about the money trail obstruction for ten months but also had swatted it away like a housefly, investigating it exhaustively. So, this episode did not cause him any heartburn and was not the cause of his agitation.  

However, when Garrett Graff’s otherwise impressive factual compilation, Watergate: A New History, reaches this scenario, the author chooses to pull his punches rather than hint that a) the CIA was involved in Watergate to its eyeballs, and b) the Washington Post deceived its readers by concealing this crucial drama, which in turn would have revealed both CIA Watergate infiltration and its thuggish illegality of past years. 

Graff earlier in the book made much of his exhaustive, detailed review of massive troves of documents, many recently released; hundreds of books, tapes, and documentaries; at least thirty first-person accounts of protagonists; as well as thousands of hours of White House audio tapes. He corrects the smallest of errors in these recountings, including dates and spellings. This historian is certainly meticulous, the reader is led to understand. But when it comes to the dire warnings of Mark Felt, here is his questionable treatment:

… Felt seemed angry and worried, almost manic. He paced and spoke for only a few minutes before disappearing, warning of how Nixon had tried to enlist the CIA in obstructing Watergate and saying almost out of nowhere, “Everyone’s life is in danger!”

(Graff, Id. at p. 287.)

Please note that by focusing on this non-emergent, unfrightening event of months past, Graff captures an incident where the White House was guilty and the CIA was innocent, directly the opposite of the meaning conveyed by Felt in that May 1973 garage meeting. The author likely knew of credible suspicion that two potential whistleblower detectives were shortly thereafter poisoned to induce heart attacks, and a third witness had fled to the FBI before the meeting to report threats on his life. So, “out of nowhere”? Hardly. By treating the incident as he did, he may be credibly accused of violating the supposed lesson of Watergate: don’t cover up, speak the truth. 

If young historian Graff were the first and only writer to engage in such historical shenanigans, perhaps this example would be a simple outlier, to be punished by his peers. But it is not an outlier, and similar historical writing has not been punished for fifty years, but rewarded. So, as we watch, read, and listen to supposedly thorough accounts of Watergate, we must ask key questions. Which entity was the main agent of deceit, a White House that hadn’t a clue or a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper that did? Because of Watergate journalism’s worldwide success, has the rest of the media and academia been thereby unable to speak truth to Washington Post power? It sure seems like it has taught the wrong lessons to the world of journalism and academia. 

Historians like Graff are not so much revealing what happened in Watergate, as much as continuing a fifty-year coverup, in winking collaboration with the Washington Post


John D. O’Connor is a former federal prosecutor and the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the author of the book, The Mysteries of Watergate: What Really Happened.

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