A by-the-book FBI veteran investigating a roiling White House obsessed with leaks to an aggressive press.
Indeed, it’s impossible to watch “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” and not compare the Watergate era to the current investigations of the Trump campaign’s possible involvement with Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the movie, which premiered locally at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis on Friday, was not meant as an intentional allegory to today, and in fact was written well before.
“Mark Felt” does invoke comparisons to “All the President’s Men,” in which the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are central to the Watergate story.
For instance, in “All the President’s Men,” Felt — an anonymous source then known by his Post nickname, “Deep Throat” — appeared in the shadows of dark parking ramps, spilling secrets to Woodward. In “Mark Felt,” Woodward isn’t shadowy, but he’s eclipsed as the key figure unraveling the unrivaled political scandal.
In reality, both the buttoned-up lawman and the scruffier reporter were critical actors in the drama that unwound the West Wing.
“Within the White House, the focus was basically just the fear of what Woodward and Bernstein knew, and where the leak was,” said William “Bill” Dunlap, who was assistant postmaster general during the Nixon administration. “It got to the point where it was a complete preoccupation.”
Dunlap, who kept clean during Watergate and went on to become chairman and CEO of Campbell Mithun advertising (my former employer), added with a laugh that in years since the scandal, “I told Woodward a couple of things that even he didn’t know, and he sent me a note a while back saying I was his new Deep Throat.”
As for the original version, few knew that Felt was whispering cryptic clues to Woodward until Felt revealed himself decades later. Dunlap said he “was surprised but not shocked” that the FBI’s former No. 2 became the No. 1 leaker. Felt, Dunlap added, wasn’t trusted by the White House, in part because he “was at the epicenter of everything — he knew everything.”
Whether Robert Mueller knows everything remains to be seen. But the special counsel appointed by the Justice Department is clearly on to something, given his investigation’s intensity. There are some striking similarities between Mueller and Felt, as both come across as black-and-white gray eminences of legal rectitude.
But while Mueller rose to the top of the FBI ranks, Felt was passed over when former President Richard Nixon tapped a trusted White House insider, L. Patrick Gray, to lead the bureau after the death of J. Edgar Hoover. The professional slight may have motivated Felt. But his personal sense of justice was likely the driving dynamic, as Felt was deeply offended by Nixon administration abuses.
“There was some sense of injustice or moral reasoning” behind Felt leaking to the press, said Dunlap. He noted similarities between Felt and Mueller by saying, “I think they both were very careful about their adherence to the law; both were men of good intentions.”
That’s not the same assessment Dunlap has of Nixon and President Donald Trump.
“There are a whole number of areas where Nixon and Trump are the same in terms of dealing with and hatred of the press,” Dunlap said. He cited an example amplified this week when Trump tweeted: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”
Forget the fact that affiliates, not networks, have FCC licenses, and that aggressive investigative reporting is the primary ethos behind the First Amendment. The very sentiment is something seen from leaders of repressive regimes, not the nation that should shine as the beacon of press freedom.
NBC was the network that offended the president this time. But other news organizations have troubled — and will trouble — Trump, including the Post, which is in a keen competition with the New York Times and other outlets to report on the Russian investigation. Such scrutiny during Watergate “took up all of the oxygen,” said Dunlap, who wonders if some of the same dynamics are happening in the White House today.
“It’s like being dipped in acid,” Dunlap added, recalling the atmosphere of the Nixon White House.
How close the current controversies are to the events back then remain to be seen, and indeed Mueller and congressional committees may eventually reflect the Trump administration’s view of the matter. But Dunlap said that until and unless it’s cleared up, “it gets into the fabric of society.”
America’s social fabric was worn in 1974, but did not rip apart due to Watergate. It’s even more frayed today, and it won’t mend easily even after there’s clarity on the multiple investigations into the 2016 elections.
Dunlap said that he has met nine presidents and worked with three or four of them and that “right now I’m more worried about what’s happening than I have been during my lifetime.”
During Watergate, he concluded, “I felt more stability in terms of the institutions of government. Right now, I have less confidence in how this whole thing might evolve.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.