Watergate? China could write the script

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 December, 2008, 12:00am

According to Henry Kissinger, Chinese leaders never understood Watergate and what it meant to Americans. Chinese, of course, don't understand how democracy really works. But, it seems Americans understand it even less.

The admission by former top FBI officer Mark Felt in 2005 that he was 'Deep Throat' should have led to serious soul-searching within the US media and society; it should have caused historians and journalists to rewrite the entire history of Watergate and the Nixon presidency. That didn't happen.

Felt's death last week aged 95 is unlikely to cause a serious re-examination of this critical period in US history, either. This is a pity. Ruthless infighting between government departments and officials, which is really what Watergate was about, is familiar to generations of power brokers in Beijing, but probably foreign to most Americans. For them, the fall of Nixon is proof that their system works. It proves nothing of the sort.

For a generation, Americans have been spoon-fed a myth by The Washington Post and the US mainstream media about how two young and enterprising reporters, supervised by a brilliant editor and encouraged by the newspaper's courageous publisher, brought down a corrupt presidency.

It was supposed to be a shining example of the vital role unfettered journalism plays in a democracy. I must admit that reading Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's bestseller All The President's Men made me want to become a journalist. But at the heart of the book, and for decades afterwards, was the unanswered question: who was Deep Throat? Pledging the sacred duty of journalists to protect their sources, Woodward, Bernstein and Ben Bradlee, their editor, never revealed his identity until Felt called a press conference in 2005.

If the anonymous source had been, say, a disgruntled election campaign manager or an unhappy White House worker for Nixon, it wouldn't have mattered so much. But he turned out to be the deputy associate director of the FBI, its No3.

And, for much of the time during The Post's Watergate investigation, he was practically in charge, after J. Edgar Hoover, its first and longest-serving director died and Nixon appointed an outsider, Patrick Gray, in his place. Felt had been with the agency for decades and had all the experience Gray lacked.

Nixon wanted an outsider to rein in the FBI which, for decades, had served as Hoover's personal serfdom from which he expanded his power and influence by keeping secret files on the most powerful and richest people in the US, including presidents. Hoover's death in 1972 handed Nixon a gift, or so he thought. Hoover's No2, Clyde Tolson, resigned. Nixon passed over Felt and appointed Gray.

Felt fought back to avenge the personal slight and to protect what he saw as the integrity and legacy of Hoover's FBI - by leaking details of campaign fraud, political espionage and sabotage, illegal break-ins, improper tax audits, illegal wiretapping and secret slush funds by Nixon's White House.

So the real story behind Watergate is how the FBI tried to protect itself by bringing down a hostile presidency, and how journalists allowed themselves to be used in this government power play.

Leaks are a routine part of intergovernmental warfare in any society. Exposing Nixon's crimes was necessary but, by hiding behind the need to protect sources, The Post's journalists won undeserved praise while hiding their self-serving motive and an essential part of the story.

Indeed, Woodward and Bernstein's investigative prowess was overrated. After Watergate, they never managed another scoop on a comparable scale. In their book, they admitted being repeatedly scooped over Watergate by rival journalists, who did not have the benefit of Felt.

Do Chinese understand Watergate? They understand it perfectly.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post