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Right Field

Shallow End

By Russ Smith | Posted 6/8/2005

Largely lost in last week’s torrent of media self-aggrandizement over Mark Felt’s confession that he was Deep Throat was the plain fact that most Americans didn’t really care about the identity of Bob Woodward’s Watergate source. What might have been a stunning revelation 25 years ago, when the series of Nixon White House scandals were still fresh, is now, even to those of us who raptly followed Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Washington Post reporting (and books and movie), a curious footnote. As for those under 40, even the minority consumed with current events, the story was something they either studied for 30 minutes in a history class or came across in a book.

After all, Richard Nixon’s dead, as are his chief lieutenants H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. The Democratic Party’s enormous short-term political gains after the president’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s ineffective White House reign evaporated with astonishing speed, first with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and then Newt Gingrich’s takeover of Congress 14 years later.

The mysteries of Watergate, while diverting at the time, don’t remotely compare to the far more complex questions regarding John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Even though that stop-in-your-tracks tragedy happened 10 years earlier than Nixon’s meltdown, historically it’s far more radioactive.

Is anyone who was alive back then convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy? George W. Bush’s legion of detractors regularly deride the alleged unprecedented “secrecy” of his administration, but that charge is pretty weak when you think of the fishy Warren Report on JFK’s assassination, and the possible consequences—and not just political—if the truth was revealed at the time. Forty-two years after the event it’s still of enormous significance.

It’s the one national whodunit that I hope is resolved before my mind turns to mush. Deep Throat is peanuts compared to the Cold War dynamics that dominated foreign policy for so long, not to mention the mob and union connections to the case—say hey to Bobby Kennedy’s foe Jimmy Hoffa—the revelations of which could’ve shattered the myth of Camelot long before the gossip hounds dismantled it by probing into JFK’s sex life.

Was the Kennedy hit engineered by a Soviet Union-Fidel Castro alliance in retaliation for the U.S. victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the CIA’s numerous attempts to assassinate the Cuban dictator? An internal de facto coup by the U.S. intelligence community, or bareknuckled revenge meted out by mobsters infuriated with RFK and patriarch Joseph Kennedy?

Unlike the identity of Deep Throat, this unsolved crime remains relevant to America’s political culture since so many Democrats (and former Democrats) still worship the meticulously orchestrated JFK presidency and try to recapture the manufactured glitter of those 1,000 days in the early ’60s. Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, John Edwards, and John Kerry, just to name a few contemporary pols, have tried, with varying degrees of success, to remind voters of Kennedy.

The extended Kennedy clan is active in public life, led by Sen. Teddy, a galvanizing force for liberals despite his own personal troubles. RFK’s surviving children, and their spouses and cousins, are automatically on short lists to run for any number of state-level offices. Even a lightweight like Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) is able to raise vast amounts of money for his party because of his last name.

It’s possible, of course, that Oswald acted on his own volition, a lunatic with a score to settle. Given the extraordinary geopolitical tensions of that era, however, as well as domestic subterfuge that wasn’t under the microscope of today’s exponentially expanded media industry, that doesn’t seem likely.

Meanwhile, the huge splash caused by Vanity Fair’s article exposing Felt set off a typically partisan, and hypocritical, debate among Washington politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists. Many conservatives branded Felt a “traitor” because he violated FBI protocol and has finally come forward to reap financial rewards. Journalist and actor Ben Stein wrote on June 3 in the online American Spectator that Felt leaked to Woodward because he was passed over as J. Edgar Hoover’s successor, thus ruining the career of “peacemaker” Nixon.

This doesn’t wash: Felt isn’t the most noble of men, perhaps, but his help given to Woodward and Bernstein far transcends the motivations of one conflicted public official. Nixon was a creep (pun intended), and the Post’s stories, along with Judge John Sirica’s probing of James McCord and the Senate and House hearings, were crucial at the time.

On the other hand, I don’t see how liberals can justify calling Felt a “hero” while continuing to dismiss Linda Tripp, who was the central figure in exposing the Monica Lewinsky scandal—which led to Clinton admitting that he lied under oath, a not insignificant felony—as a trailer-trash harpy who was interested solely in personal gain. But then double standards can make everybody happy.

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