Have Historians Been Trumped by Journalism Students?
Bruce Craig, July 2002
From the Viewpoints column in the Summer 2002 Perspectives Online
Thirty years ago, on June 17, 1972, the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Building set off a chain of events that ultimately forced President Richard Nixon to resign. Despite all the books, articles, hints, speculations, claims, and counterclaims since then, one mystery has remained elusive: Just who was "Deep Throat," that mysterious, chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, garage-haunting man who served as a secret source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and figured in their book, All the President's Men (and the movie)? The 30th anniversary of the Watergate scandal this June was inevitably marked by obligatory stories in the nation's press—including USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor—speculating anew on the identity of this shadowy figure.
Over the years, historians, journalists, Nixon White House staffers, and others have suggested dozens of individuals ranging from Henry Kissinger to Alexander Haig as candidates for the secret source. A few years ago, Leonard Garment, White House counsel to President Nixon, published In Search of Deep Throat (New York: Basic Books, 2000) and named John Sears III, a deputy counsel to Nixon as the mystery man. The evidence? Well, it's pretty iffy at best, and Garment makes only an educated guess.
Most recently, in a 40,000-word e-book published this last month on Salon.com, former White House Counsel John Dean (who spent 127 days in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal) declined to name a specific individual but narrowed the circle of suspects to four: three-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, presidential assistant Steve Bull, and ex-press secretary Ron Ziegler. According to reporter Woodward, "Deep Throat" is still alive and the name won't be revealed until he is dead. In a 1997 interview with NBC, Woodward divulged a little more information about Deep Throat. He said that his secret source was staying in the closet as he had not been truthful with colleagues or family members about his role in bringing down President Nixon. Hmmmm....
But now comes the latest solution-perhaps more convincing than the speculations of Leonard Garment or John Dean-from a group of investigative journalism students at the University of Illinois, whose research techniques and persuasive though not yet conclusive findings were highlighted in a June 14 broadcast of NBC's news program, Dateline (a transcript of which is available at http://www.msnbc.com/news/764689.asp). After watching that broadcast, well, frankly, I was embarrassed. In finding an answer to this enduring Washington puzzle, the student investigators seem to have trumped professional historians! Their detailed and meticulous historical research should have been undertaken by historians years ago and this mystery should have long-ago been put to rest.
In the Dateline broadcast, Professor William Gaines (himself a two-time winner of the Pulitzer and described by colleagues as "the Columbo of journalism") explains how he has focused the attention of his investigative journalism classes for three-years in a row now in an effort to crack the case. And as a result, the students think they have a pretty good idea who Deep Throat was.
Through their systematic research methods the students effectively put to rest the speculations of Watergate figure Charles Colson that "Deep Throat" never existed and that he merely is "a composite literary figure." Not only do they have the word of Washington Post editors on that, but the students also found references in the margin notes of an early draft of All the President's Men that seem to conclusively demonstrate that Deep Throat indeed was a real person. But in addition to studying early drafts of the Woodward and Bernstein book for clues to the legendary figure's identity, the students demonstrated their research acumen by also filing FOIA requests and sifting through 16,000 pages of FBI files relating to the Watergate investigation. They studied the congressional testimony of all the Watergate witnesses, they read and reread the autobiographies of the principals, they listened to oral histories, and they cross-tabbed the movements of 72 members of the Nixon White House staff and narrowed the list of suspects to seven. (For details of their methods, visit http://www.comm.uiuc.edu/spike/deepthroat/.) The students then boldly made telephone calls to all of the remaining individuals and asked them point-blank, "Are you Deep Throat?" All except one answered the question with a firm declaratory "no." The only person to refuse to comment was also most of the students' "best hunch" for Deep Throat, Pat Buchanan.
Thus far, Buchanan is sticking to his "no comment" position. So are Woodward and Bernstein. But probably after Gaines's next class finishes researching the short list of suspects, much like the popular television program, What's My Line, where the audience guesses the unusual occupation of a real person amongst several imposters, when the time comes for the real "Deep Throat" to be identified, Buchanan may not have the option of standing up-he simply will be fingered. Though Gaines is too much a professional to make a definitive statement at this time on who the legendary figure is, he plans on drafting more students in his class to continue the search.
—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History.