A Sequester Sequester

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I like movies as much as the next guy, maybe more, but I was sorry to learn that Michelle Obama had announced the Oscar for the best picture last Sunday. She made the announcement via video feed from the White House. Presidential participation in the Academy Awards gives Hollywood story-telling a legitimacy that it does not deserve. Feature films entertain, inspire, illuminate, amuse. But truth-telling, as it is understood by acolytes of science, history and news, is pretty far down on their list.

Some cases in point this year: Canadians are annoyed because their involvement in the  caper depicted in “Argo” was significantly underplayed. “Lincoln” screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg needed to build the drama in their climactic scene, so they invented two Connecticut congressmen to vote “No” as the roll was called on the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, ran into trouble in Congress because of the value (the film-makers were purposefully vague) ascribed to information produced by torture.

But the best example of Hollywood’s tendency to embroider to the point of fabrication is nearly forty years old. (I should say that I am leaving director Oliver Stone out of the discussion altogether.)  That is the spin that director Alan Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman put on the motivation of the anonymous source known as “Deep Throat,” in their 1976 film version of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Watergate best-seller, All the President’s Men.

You remember the movie, I hope.  Veteran actor Hal Holbrook plays the high-ranking official the two young Washington Post reporters had portrayed in their book as “trying to protect the office [of the presidency…], to effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.”

There were the meetings in parking garages that Woodward had described, Holbrook half-concealed in the shadows. [Copy editor: in some ways, the most important element in the mythification of Deep Throat was how Gordon Willis lit Holbrook.] After Deep Throat conveys the warning that the reporters are being watched, that their lives may be in danger, Woodward goes back to his apartment, turns up the music (in case the room is bugged) and types out the message to tell his partner.  It is the climax of the film. He doesn’t confide, in the book or the film, what he soon learned – that their source had “retired” from the government the day before

Whereupon, true to their promise of confidentiality, Woodward and Bernstein spent more than thirty years protecting their source’s identity, while a small corps of obsessive reporters tried to pry out the secret.

In 2005, it turned out that Deep Throat was former deputy FBI director Mark Felt.  The circumstances of the disclosure were confusing. Felt was losing memory by then; he had begun discussing his role with his family a couple of years before.  A friendly lawyer was involved; the family had commissioned a free-lance writer, hoping to cash in on the story; eventually the lawyer wrote an article that appeared in Vanity Fair.  Meanwhile Woodward was writing book of his own, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, and told his version of the story in the Post.  Felt died in 2008.

Felt’s motivation for being Deep Throat? Apparently it boiled down to this:  he was shocked that he hadn’t been named to succeed J. Edgar Hoover, who had died in May, 1972. just weeks before the EWatergate break-in. He was trying to knock out L. Patrick Gray, who had been named acting director, leaving the permanent nomination still up for grabs.

We know about this in considerable detail, thanks to independent journalist Max Holland.  In Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (University of Kansas Press, 2012), he reconstructs in painstaking detail the elaboration of the Deep Throat legend, from the carefully-edited stories in the Post, to the more poetic version of the book, where the reporters’ source is identified by the sobriquet that Post managing editor Howard Simons had conferred on him in internal discussions; to the brilliant  version of a whistleblower created by actor Holbrook in the film. He lays out, too, how Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times contributed to the story at crucial junctures, often leading the way.

True, the All the President’s Men didn’t purport to be a work of disinterested scholarship.  It was a highly personal account by two young reporters who had broken a story of enormous significance, and, of necessity, it left much out. Then, as Holland writes, the film simplified matters even more than had the book.

[It] virtually ignored or denigrated the critical roles two Post editors –  Simons and Barry Sussman had played in pursuit of the story, , and in piecing together the Watergate puzzle.  And the movie made it appear as if the FBI, federal prosecutors and the grand jury were ciphers that had played no important role in exposing the scandal.

It is easy enough to understand why Woodward and Bernstein let the film version stand in 1976. The story was over. They were struggling to come to grips with their new-found fame, eager to get on with their careers. Plus, they’d sold the rights.

Less easy to take in is the missed opportunity, when Deep Throat’s identity finally emerged, to set matters more nearly straight. The Secret Man found Woodward more or less defending the movie version.

With a story as enticing, complex, and competitive and quickly unfolding as Watergate, there was little tendency or time to consider the motives of our sources.  What was important was whether the information checked out and whether it was true… The cliché about drinking from a fire hose applied.  There was no time to ask our source, Why are you talking?  Do you have an ax to grind? Why don’t you blow the whistle publicly; stand up there and tell all you know? This was the case with Mark Felt.

… His words and guidance had immense, at times even staggering authority.  The weight, authenticity, and his restraint were more important than his design, if he had one.

Moreover, neither the Post nor the Times reviewed Leak when it appeared last year. They’ll have another chance when the documentary about the Watergate story that Robert Redford has promised comes along. (The Wall Street Journal, weighed in.) In the meantime, though, beware a tight connection of Hollywood and truth, at least in the lower-case sense of the word. Remember that dogged case-writers such as Holland are important contributors to the story.

So much for my sequester of the sequester story.  Back to our deep philosophical divide next week.