Dec 22, 2008 Why did Felt blow the whistle on Nixon?
United States Constitution (From public domain.)
How selfish or not was the late W. Mark Felt’s motivation to help the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein blow the lid off the Watergate coverup right up to Nixon, to the point that Nixon was forced to resign lest he be removed from office by impeachment?
On National Public Radio this past weekend, Daniel Schorr — who apparently was on Nixon’s enemies list — boiled Felt’s motivation to two things: First, Felt — who took three decades to admit he was the Deep Throat informer — wanted to preserve the integrity of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Second, Felt had been passed over by Nixon to succeed J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI.
Schorr’s first point is tempered by Felt’s 1980 conviction while Carter was president — if he were indeed guilty — for approving illegal "black bag" break-ins of the homes of suspected Weather Underground members, for which Reagan pardoned him five months later while the case was on appeal. Schorr says Nixon long suspected Felt of being Deep Throat, and NPR reports that Nixon supported Reagan’s pardon of Felt.
If Felt approved such break-ins without judicial search warrants, did he do so on the orders or urging of a higher-up, or was this just business as usual at the time at the FBI that Felt was not going to stop? Was Felt a carbon copy of J. Edgar Hoover, who was no great friend of civil liberties, and did he just want to maintain FBI independence from the White House? In any event, this man who was convicted of one break-in helped blow the lid off a more monumental break-in.
Most likely because the radio segment was so brief, Daniel Schorr did not elaborate on how Felt was motivated by Nixon’s not having him replace J. Edgar Hoover. Was Felt paying back Nixon? Was he in so much pain from not being elevated to the FBI’s directorship that he was willing for Nixon to experience the profound pain that Nixon ended up experiencing? Would Felt have felt more loyalty to Nixon had he been made FBI director? Felt left the FBI in 1973, so his insider information ended or fizzled there.
Regardless of Felt’s motivation, he did the nation a great service by revealing the cover-up to Woodward and Bernstein. However, we must remember that few battles for justice are between the extremes of black and white and pure good and pure evil. Power will be abused in and out of government as long as people have power. Moreover, too many Americans seem to thirst for a powerful America just to have a powerful America.
In the foregoing context, Ronald Reagan’s overly-simplistic 1980 campaign message of making America great again rang strongly with many Americans who did not want to see America surrender any more wars after Vietnam and did not want to see presidents like Jimmy Carter restrain the military from very violently addressing such international "embarrassments" as the taking and lengthy keeping of American hostages in Iran. Probably in a proverbial game of chicken, the Iranian leaders recognized that Reagan was trigger-happy enough to invade Iran and possibly drop a nuclear bomb or more there if the hostage crisis were not dropped post-haste, which led to the Iran-Contra abuse and solidification of presidential power, but Reagan was into his final term once everyone knew about Iran-Contra.
George Bush I took over after Reagan, probably less from his own qualities than the robotic failure of Mike Dukakis to connect with the American people, as exemplified by his failure to even say during a debate who his heroes were. Of course, Quayle said his grandmother was his hero, because he underlined she taught him that you can achieve anything you resolve to achieve; how non-profound a reason to choose a hero. Of course, the nagging question remains of where was George Bush I during the Iran-Contra scandal.
Then came Clinton, who did not seem to be such a power-hungry paranoid as Nixon nor a Rambo Reagan. However, Clinton for the most part continued the status quo of the military-government-industrial complex. Then came Bush II, who used September 11 as an excuse to run roughshod over the Constitution, along with the excessive number of Congress members who let him do it. And he still got re-elected in 2004; then again, his opponent John Kerry did not do much to connect with voters.
Now comes Obama, who spoke loudly and amorphously of "change" during his campaign, and who has named a slew of establishment people to cabinet posts and other high-level posts who do not seem yet to offer much beneficial change from what the Bill Clinton administration offered. Like Bill Clinton, Obama is a lawyer and very bright, and probably well understands Constitutional law. How much will Obama protect the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights as it applies to everyone, including criminal defendants?
Unfortunately, until the economy heals much further, too many people are going to see civil liberties as luxuries that can take a back seat to the economy. However, anytime that civil liberties are permitted to be weakened, it takes much more struggle to revive them than the heavy lifting it already takes to expand and keep them going. .
Watergate made clear the absence of limits to the possible and actual abuses of governmental power, but by no means spelled an end to such abuses. The successes in reversing the Watergate nightmare will be of little use if we do not constantly, effectively, and thoroughly scrutinize the actions and abuses of power of everyone in government, from executives to their underlings, to legislators, to judges, and to the cops on the street, prosecutors in court, and jailers in the overpopulation of the nation’s detention facilities.
For those, like I, who believe they are on the side of the angels fighting in court for criminal defendants, that client-by-client approach by itself will not secure civil liberties; constant vigilance over government actions outside the courthouses is also critical. Jon Katz
ADDENDUM: A quality video of Nixon’s resignation speech apparently is not on YouTube, but can be found here. Dan Aykroyd could not have delivered a more surreal performance than Nixon during this video of final studio preparation for his resignation speech.