Monday, December 07, 2015

The Greatest Mysteries Have No Answers

I was absolutely thrilled the other day to find a copy of 'The Secret Man', Bob Woodward's most recent book on Watergate and the one he wrote after the revelation of Deep Throat's identity. Because even as a kid, the identity of Deep Throat was one of those great historical mysteries, on a par with the true identity of Jack the Ripper and the fate of the passengers of the Marie Celeste. Everyone wanted to know the secret identity of the man who took down the President (even though Woodward and Bernstein were a bit more modest than the movies in suggesting the role he played), and it appeared for the longest time that the truth behind it would stay hidden forever.

And then it came out. And a lot of people looked very smart, and a few people looked very foolish, and Bob Woodward wrote a book about it...and when I read it, I learned just how little we really knew at all. Because Woodward makes it painfully clear in 'The Secret Man' that he didn't really know Mark Felt, the Number Two man at the FBI who provided Woodward and Bernstein with the road map they needed to uncover Watergate. They were casual acquaintances, and after Watergate they didn't even speak for decades. Woodward doesn't have the slightest clue what would make Felt do what he did. Nobody does.

Oh, he has some good guesses. He knew Felt was a Hoover loyalist who believed strongly in the ideals of the FBI, and that it had to have gutted him to watch a political appointee destroy evidence and allow the agency to become a political instrument. He knew Felt was an ambitious man who must have been furious to see himself passed over for promotion not once but twice. (Part of this, of course, was that one of the few people who wasn't fooled by Felt's deceptions was Nixon himself. He knew Felt was Deep Throat all along, but never did anything with the information because he was afraid that Felt would be even more damaging if Nixon forced him to go public.) Woodward knew a lot of things about Felt, but he didn't know the man.

And ultimately, nobody did. Knowing who Deep Throat is, while it certainly satisfies the mundane question of "Who was this person who knew so much about the Nixon conspiracy?", doesn't solve the mystery. The ultimate mystery is in the heart of a solitary, private individual who took his reasons to the grave--as with Jack the Ripper, the identity turns out to be the least important question, and knowing the answer means almost nothing.

It's haunting, realizing that there are things we can never know. Not just in the literal, historical sense--things are lost to history every day, even with the best of efforts from archivists. (18 1/2 minutes worth of things, for example.) I mean in the sense that ultimately, we can never truly understand the great decisions of history. People justify, they misremember, they lie and they obfuscate...or, as in the case of Felt, they simply take their secrets to the grave.

Mark Felt was Deep Throat. But who was Mark Felt?

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