June 2, 2005
Unlike a lot of people whose opinions are based on ancient grudges, I have no special sympathy or antipathy toward Mark Felt, whose tips on Watergate to Bob Woodward led to the downfall of Richard Nixon. Some former Nixon officials, such as Charles Colson and Pat Buchanan, resent Felt as a traitor without any scruples. Some have accused Felt of breaking the FBI's rules on reporting crimes, undermining the institution's integrity. Given the corruption in that agency and in the executive branch at the time, however, Felt didn't have much choice if he wanted the Watergate crimes to be investigated. Disloyal officials were being severely punished in the Nixon era, and Felt wasn't stupid. Robert Novak questioned Felt's motivations for leaking in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times. He also says that Felt was considered by others in the FBI to be a sycophantic lieutenant of J. Edgar Hoover, "part of the problem" that mades reforming that agency so difficult. The fact that Felt may have acted more out of frustrated ambitions than noble concern for the public good suggests that he is no hero, but it should not sway our view of whether his action was justified. Few people would argue that the United States would have been better off if the Watergate crimes had never been uncovered or punished. As John Dean said famously back then, "There is a cancer growing in the presidency," and one can only imagine how much deeper the corruption of the Nixon administration would have become if Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and other officials had never been held accountable. Rush Limbaugh has alluded to the absence of similar informants in the Clinton administration, which managed to dodge several major scandals, and one particularly notorious but secondary scandal. Limbaugh made it clear he was not making excuses for Nixon's law-breaking, just calling attention to selective outrage over presidential misdeeds in the media. He also pointed out that Felt has aged in humble obscurity, while Woodward and Bernstein became millionaire authors. C'est la vie.
Today's Washington Post has a series of articles on this case, reviewing the history of Watergate and explaining how it was that they got scooped by Vanity Fair. As with most baby boomers, Watergate and Vietnam were the two main historical events that shaped my political outlook as a young adult. Somewhere in my family archives I've got an ancient high school newspaper with an editorial I wrote calling for Nixon to resign. The lessons that unchecked power tends to corrupt, and that blind loyalty can sometimes facilitate crime, are still valid today. I would hope that many people would recall that partisan affiliations tainted opinions about Nixon and Watergate during the 1970s, such that old segregationists like Sam Ervin became sudden folk heroes just because they were against Nixon. (What "southern strategy"?) The same sort of hard-core partisanship is badly distorting many people's opinions of contemporary political issues such as Social Security reform. Perhaps the bitter divisiveness and distrust of today are merely the aftershocks of the Vietnam-Watergate era.