It's hard to overstate the effect Watergate had on a whole generation of journalists. We were in journalism school when it happened, and, man, oh, man, here was the perfect example of just what we were aspiring to. Brave, dogged reporters take on the powerful and corrupt and, with the help of a courageous insider, expose the truth and bring down a president.
And, of course, it was all a big crock.
The real story is "considerably messier and less than a fairy tale," Holland writes in Leak. Through interviews, declassified documents and Nixon's White House tapes, he demonstrates convincingly that Felt's objectives were covetous rather than civic: He desperately wanted to be director of the FBI.
Less than a month before the Watergate break-in, the top FBI job had come open for the first time in 37 years with the death of J. Edgar Hoover. Enraged that he hadn't gotten the job, Felt saw Watergate as an opportunity to shatter the career of the man who did, Nixon's friend L. Patrick Gray.
Felt began systematically leaking material from the FBI's Watergate investigation. He knew Nixon, whose paranoia about leaks was legendary in Washington, would figure out that the source was somewhere in the FBI. Gray would be blamed, lose his job (he hadn't yet been confirmed by the Senate and was officially only acting director) and Felt would be the logical replacement.
Felt played the Washington media like a mighty Wurlitzer, planting his leaks not just with the [Washington] Post but Time magazine, the Washington Daily News and anybody else who would take them. As his scheme began to work, with Nixon pressing Gray hard to plug the leaks, Felt stood smugly by as other FBI officials were demoted or threatened with the loss of their jobs. [...]
It takes journalists some time to realize (and some never quite get there) how tricky dealing with sources can be. We're using them to tell the stories we want to tell, but they're also using us to further agendas that aren't always easy to figure out. That doesn't make what they say any less valid -- just more difficult to weigh and judge. Nixon was Nixon, after all, whatever the motives for the person who ratted him out.
Last word to Michel de Montaigne (from a fascinating essay on cooperation in the us-against-them political age): "When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?"