Remembering William Gaines, the journalist obsessed with Watergate's Deep Throat | Bleader

Remembering William Gaines, the journalist obsessed with Watergate's Deep Throat

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William Gaines in 2005 - ANDY LAVLLEY/POST-TRIBUNE
  • Andy Lavlley/Post-Tribune
  • William Gaines in 2005

When reporters have fooled you because you assumed they were being honest, did you give those reporters too much credit or too little? After William Gaines, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his investigative journalism at the Tribune, retired from the paper in 2001 to teach journalism at the University of Illinois, he led his students in the unraveling of his business's greatest mystery: Who was the Watergate scandal's Deep Throat?

In 2003, Gaines's class announced its conclusion: Deep Throat had been a White House attorney named Fred Fielding. But the class was wrong. In 2005 we all found out Deep Throat was Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI.

Gaines took the mistake in stride. He explained to me that the class had carefully read All the President's Men, the memoir by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that introduced Deep Throat as Woodward's secret Watergate source, and drawn inferences from the details. Some of those details offended Gaines—they were indiscreet. "When you have a confidential source you don't say anything about him," he'd tell me.

"But as it turned out, they didn't do that," Gaines said when Felt was unmasked by Vanity Fair. "They fooled us. They were not giving up clues after all. The clues we saw deceived us." And Gaines approved.

To many journalists who'd lived through Watergate, naming Felt closed the book on the era. But Gaines still had questions about the Felt-Woodward relationship. He teamed up with Max Holland, author of the online newsletter Washington Decoded, to pursue them, and in 2007 Gaines and Holland published the critique "Deep Throat 3.0." Gaines argued that Felt had been a lot more central to the Post's Watergate coverage than Woodward ever acknowledged, and Holland made the case that Woodward frequently compromised Felt's interests to serve the Post's and his own. The most dramatic example of this was his revealing that there was a Deep Throat at all. 

Holland continued to write about Watergate, and in 2012 he published a book, Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat. There was nothing romantic or noble about his answers. Holland said Felt leaked to Woodward (and other reporters) because he was calculating and ambitious; he wanted to run the FBI, and he believed his leaks would discredit the FBI's current boss yet never be traced back to their source.

Felt had a "basic contempt for the media," Holland wrote; Felt and Woodward were using each other.

Bill Gaines died on July 20 at the age of 82. Obituaries focused on his Pulitzers and his Deep Throat inquiry, and Holland sent me a long tribute. Everything he wrote about Watergate after "Deep Throat 3.0" was done in "close consultation" with Gaines, Holland said, and if Gaines had been younger and healthier, Leak probably would have carried his name as coauthor. But Gaines "was modest and deferential, and he didn't want his name on any article that he wasn't a full partner in researching and/or writing."

Together, they were stripping the mystique from Watergate. Holland told me he and Gaines proved to their own satisfaction that Woodward and Bernstein "had presented a shifting explanation of Felt's instrumentality as it suited their purpose." Holland then wanted to show the two reporters had been just as disingenuous at representing Felt's motives. Gaines "was a font of ideas about what to look for and where. He shared several of his key FBI documents and listened with rapt attention as I described my growing body of interviews with journalists, FBI execs, and DOJ attorneys from that time.

"I wanted him to be a coauthor," Holland went on, "because I thought that it would be unfair if history remembered him for being so prominently wrong about Deep Throat's identity, which is what I feared his obit would say about his Watergate period. Instead, I thought he should be remembered for helping to expose the truth about Felt and why he did what he did. In retrospect, Bill's big mistake in 2003 had been to take Woodward and Bernstein at their word and too literally."

When journalists wander into academia, idealism can get the better of them. I picture Holland reminding Gaines that he needed to put all that aside. Watergate was the trenches. It was Chinatown

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