The final surprise

Published : Jul 01, 2005 00:00 IST

The story behind the big story.

JAMIE WILSON in Washington

THE first inkling Bob Woodward had that the story was about to break came at 9.47 a.m. on May 31 when he got a phone call at home from the offices of Vanity Fair. "Great, send it along," he told David Friend, a senior editor at the magazine, who had told the veteran reporter that Vanity Fair was about to publish an exclusive article in which Mark Felt, the former number two at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the early 1970s, admitted he was Deep Throat, Woodward's fabled Watergate source.

The next call Friend made was at 9.52 a.m. to Carl Bernstein, Woodward's reporting partner during their expose of the biggest political scandal in United States political history. He responded in the same non-committal manner: "Good, really?" "I guess they are so used to getting these calls that they don't express anything in case it gives things away," Friend told the Guardian newspaper.

The phone calls set in train a series of events, culminating in an announcement at 5.39 p.m. on May 31, confirming that, after more than 30 years of keeping his identity secret, Mark Felt was indeed their mythical source for the stories that brought down Richard Nixon. As The Washington Post confessed, the newspaper had been well and truly scooped on its own exclusive. "It really landed on us," said Benjamin Bradlee, the Post's executive editor during the Watergate era. "I had no idea it was coming."

Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee had always maintained they would only reveal Deep Throat's identity after he was dead. Woodward had prepared for that event by writing a short book about what he described as their intense and sometimes troubling relationship. Simon and Schuster is now rushing the book to press. He told the Post that he had known some family members were considering going public. They had talked repeatedly of jointly writing a book to reveal the news. Instead it was Vanity Fair that broke the story, in a cloak-and-dagger tale almost worthy of the original Watergate exclusives.

It began with a cold call from John O'Connor, a lawyer representing Felt, saying the former FBI agent wanted to reveal his identity as Deep Throat in the pages of the magazine. "We often get these crackpots, but once I read his [Felt's] book, I thought, `Boy, this sounds right'," Friend said. Friend, Vanity Fair's editor Graydon Carter, and the magazine's lawyer - at the time the only three people on the Vanity Fair staff who knew about the story - were forced to sign confidentiality agreements not to reveal who Deep Throat was even if they never published a piece.

The magazine almost lost the story after refusing to pay for the exclusive. But when a book deal the Felts family had been negotiating fell through, they agreed to a story - written by O'Connor - appearing in the magazine for no fee. By the time the edition went to press, about 15 editors and staff were assigned to the story, codenamed WIG - a shorthand for Watergate. But the exclusive was kept from the rest of the magazine's employees, with those in the know producing secret cover lines and putting out rumours that the magazine had another exclusive about steroid abuse by a sports star.

The editors decided not to check the story with the three people who really would know - Woodward, Bernstein and Bradlee. In an editorial accompanying the article, Carter wrote: "If we called Woodward... to verify the identity of Deep Throat, he could rush into print his own article about the source's identity, well in advance of our own. Checking the story with his former partner Carl Bernstein [a Vanity Fair contributing editor] posed a similar problem."

Leonard Downie Jr, The Washington Post's executive editor, was giving a presentation at a management retreat in a hotel on the Maryland coast on the morning May 31 when his mobile phone rang. He turned it off without answering, and refused to take urgent calls on the hotel phone. Finally, according to a senior executive, "everybody's BlackBerrys lit up" and the editor raced back to the Washington newsroom, where the Post staff were bewildered.

"At first people were asking whether it was really true," Tom Wilkinson, assistant managing editor, told the Guardian. "But when xeroxes circulated of the piece it seemed to be pretty good stuff, and I guess that cemented it." He continued: "Woodward came in and Ben came down from upstairs... The difficulty was Bob's concern about where this left him in terms of his word to Felt, and had the fact that he had come out released him [from his promise]. There was also the ancillary question of whether Felt was competent to make that decision."

Bernstein was also on his way to the Post office. The two reporters had initially issued a terse statement reiterating their non-disclosure stance. "Bob was really kind of helpless," Downie said, because Felt had never indicated their agreement was over. But finally, after seeing television pictures of a grinning Felt waving to the cameras outside his sister's house in Santa Rosa, California, the Post decided to confirm the story because "Felt's family and lawyer made their decision for him and we had no choice".

Bernstein told The New York Times: "Once we could determine that indeed it was the wish of his family, and they were legitimately saying that their father and grandfather was Deep Throat, and with his consent, it seemed to us we had a new obligation, which was to be straightforward." At Vanity Fair there was disbelief. "It was the last thing we were expecting," Friend said.

@ Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment