The Deepest Throat


The journalism blabfest marking the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in has actually resulted in a real story: a major new Deep Throat suspect. Mr. Throat is of course the mysterious "inside" source who aided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their pursuit of the story that eventually brought down Richard Nixon. Figuring out his identity has been one of the capital's major guessing games for three decades, and there are now as many suspects for the role as there are houris in Paradise: 72.

So who, for the moment, is suspect #1? Sit down; it's Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon speechwriter who is best known today as a conservative commentator and frequent presidential candidate.

Buchanan's emergence as the accused Throat is largely the work of a journalism class at the University of Illinois. J-school professor William Gaines and a succession of students have spent three years investigating the mystery, poring over records, doing interviews, and now examining an unedited manuscript of Woodward and Bernstein's All the President's Men that may contain more clues than did the published version. The first Deep Throat class started out with 72 possibilities; the most recent narrowed it down to seven.

The class cannot narrow the field any further based on hard evidence, but its current members unanimously believe that Buchanan is their man. (The other six finalists are, in alphabetical order, Stephen Bull, an administrative assistant to Nixon; Fred Fielding, an assistant to White House counsel John Dean; David Gergen, the well-known commentator; Raymond Price, Nixon's head speechwriter; Jonathan Rose, a Nixon White House attorney, and Gerald Warren, the deputy press secretary.)

Gaines told the Chicago Tribune that he expected his students would eventually discover something that would eliminate Buchanan from their line-up. "But there was no way we could get him off the list." According to one of the students, Hugh Sloan, who was Nixon's 1972 re-election committee treasurer, has also concluded that Buchanan is Deep Throat. The Tribune notes that "When the students attempted to contact the seven finalists and ask for an interview, Buchanan was the only one who made no reply to their efforts."

John Dean now thinks Buchanan's the one, too. Dean was the White House lawyer who was at the center of the famous Senate Watergate hearings; now he's written a Deep Throat e-book for Salon.com. Dean too narrows the list to a handful (Nixon assistant Bull, lawyer Rose, speechwriter Price, press secretary Ron Ziegler, and Buchanan). In fact, most of his book is said to point at Jonathan Rose, but after Rose threatened to sue, Dean has instead focused on Buchanan. But then Dean has a long history of Deep Throat identifications behind him, having previously fingered both Earl Silbert, a former Watergate prosecutor, and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

Feeding the Buchanan story has been Bob Woodward's reaction. Woodward has consistently shot down various candidates, but this time he reacted differently. He told interviewers that he couldn't keep eliminating suspects year in and year out, because it was narrowing the list of possibilities. According to Woodward, that was unfair to the actual Deep Throat, whose secret he was pledged to keep. Meanwhile, nobody seemed to be able to locate Buchanan for his reaction, not Gaines' class, not the Trib, not anybody. That alone led some observers to conclude that the search was over, and that Deep Throat's cover had finally been blown.

On Monday night, however, Buchanan finally turned up on TV and denied to various interviewers that he was Deep Throat. Has that convinced everybody? No, though it certainly slowed the story down.

Perhaps the major effect of the Buchanan story will be to encourage old Watergate hands to think differently about the complex story. For example, would Buchanan, famous as a GOP loyalist until he made a third-party presidential run in 2000, have had a motive to be Deep Throat? J-school Student Tom Rybarczyk speculated that if he did, it might be found in Buchanan's reaction to the Nixon recognition of communist China. This tracks pretty well with what at least one of Watergate's more idiosyncratic investigators has been saying for a long time.

In 1992, Washington journalist Jim Hougan told an interviewer that "The conventional view is that Deep Throat was some sort of liberal bureaucrat who was highly placed in government. There's no reason to assume that. For all we know he might have been a right-wing nut who disapproved of Nixon's rapprochement with China and wanted to nuke them–who knows?"

Hougan, as Watergate buffs well know, is the former Washington editor for Harper's who believes that the whole classic Watergate narrative, as it is regularly rehashed on its anniversaries, is false. In his 1984 book, Secret Agenda, Hougan presented an expanded narrative that tied the break-in not merely to election-year dirty tricks, but to a prostitution ring operating in part out of a desk in the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Hougan suggested that the break-in was actually sabotaged by one of the burglars, and that the whole affair involved a titanic power struggle between the executive branch and the intelligence community.

In 1991, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin produced their own huge Watergate book, Silent Coup, which also argued that a prostitution angle was at the center of the break-in. This version's major promoter today is none other than G. Gordon Liddy, who is absolutely persuaded that he spent 52 months in jail on Watergate charges because of a complex White House conspiracy involving, among other things, a fancy Washington whorehouse.

Not many people take this counter-Watergate seriously, perhaps with good reason. But then there's a lot about Watergate that remains obscure. Some solutions can beget yet greater mysteries. We still don't know who Deep Throat was. Perhaps when we finally find out, the question will become why he was Deep Throat at all.