Mark Felt and the 'Collusion' Conspiracy

One strange element of the attempted coup against Donald Trump is that no one involved has brought up the name of W. Mark Felt. Or perhaps that’s not so strange.

Mark Felt is a unique figure in American history, an FBI official who actually did bring down a president. The president was Richard M. Nixon, the occasion the legendary Watergate scandal.

For the benefit of all you millennials out there, Watergate was the outcome of a burglary pulled at the D.C. hotel complex of that name targeting the Democratic National Committee offices during the 1972 presidential election campaign. The burglars were caught and swiftly traced back to rogue White House staffers. No involvement by Nixon was ever proven – and was unlikely in any case – but in an effort to protect his staff, a collection of sideshow habitués ranging from the simply goofy to the truly deranged, Nixon instigated a coverup.

A two-year uproar ensued, which the national media, led by the Washington Post, blew up into a full-scale, national-historical constitutional crisis. As legend has it, Nixon was about to tear the Constitution into shreds when a pair of WaPo reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, rode into town on white steeds and with the help of info from a shadowy gnome known only as “Deep Throat” (after a notorious porno flick of the day), blew the conspiracy wide open and sent Nixon packing. That’s the legend, anyway, handed down for decades since, a triumph of all right-thinking folk and a high point of postwar liberalism

For decades afterward, speculation was rife concerning the actual identity of Deep Throat, ranging from Nixon staffer John Dean to a phantom existing only in the caverns of Woodward and Bernstein’s brains. Nobody actually pinned down the real individual, who was W. Mark Felt.

It wasn’t until 2005 that Felt’s role was at last revealed, in a Vanity Fair article written by his attorney. It seems that his family, visions of lucrative book and film deals dancing in their heads, had persuaded the ailing and near-senile Felt to unburden himself at long last.

There followed a brief uproar minutely covered by media. Felt, a clear expression of puzzlement on his face, had his last hurrah. But that was all. The big book deal failed to materialize. All that ever appeared was a a reprint of an earlier memoir (ghost-written, strangely enough, by National Review veteran Ralph de Toledano). A film involving Tom Hanks was kicked around before expiring. A later effort starring Liam Neeson was released only in 2017, to universal apathy. Felt slowly drifted back into oblivion. When he finally died in 2009, it was to scarcely any notice.

Why the cool reception? Because to accept Felt at his own valuation would have been to destroy the myth of Watergate, one of liberalism’s brightest moments. The problem with Felt was his motives. Felt had worked his way up to the level of assistant director of the FBI (Is this starting to sound familiar?) and fully believed that he deserved the directorship. Instead Nixon chose L. Patrick Gray III, a bureaucratic cutout with no ties to the agency. Nixon’s thinking here was clear, and as well considered as many of his decisions: J. Edgar Hoover had been a terror in Washington for generations. His replacement had to be someone with no agency connections who would not entertain ideas of becoming the next Hoover. So the colorless bureaucrat Gray got the nod, did what was required of him for a short period, and moved on.

But this was obviously no solace to Felt, who, consumed by resentment, set out to punish the man who had undervalued him. 

We can see the problem for the Watergate myth immediately. Rather than a high moral crusade led by the country’s liberal journalistic elite, an effort that would redeem liberalism after a decade of corruption and incompetence, the scandal was and irrevocably transformed into a squalid campaign by a disgruntled employee. Rather than white knights, Woodward and Bernstein became gullible, easily manipulated stooges. The rest of the Washington elite come off little better, and one of the foundational myths of post-70s “left-liberalism” disappears in a puff of smoke.

This, then, is the prototype for the current swamp things. A president had once been destroyed on little evidence, and by an FBI official, so why couldn’t it be done once again, particularly when several, if not dozens, of FBI officials were involved (not to mention their associates, co-conspirators, and spouses)? So was born the “Russian Collusion” scandal and all that has come of it.

This time around, the conspirators had a lot more problems than Felt did – the GOP is nowhere near as naïve as it was in 1972 – and the same can be said of America as a whole. Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon – diffidence and self-doubt, serious flaws in Nixon’s character, are unimaginable in Trump. The media of 1972, composed of the Big Three Television networks and a handful of daily papers, channeled blow after blow against Nixon essentially unchallenged. Today’s alternate media acts to cushion and even curtail any similar campaign.

But there’s another element as well, one that says quite a lot about the character of Comey, Strzok, McCabe et al, one that suggests that they couldn’t have succeeded even with everything going their way.

Whatever can be said about Mark Felt – and there’s plenty – it has to be admitted that he was perfectly self-aware. Felt knew that there was no way he could go public. To reveal that the Watergate “scandal” was based on the testimony of a crybaby employee would have blown the whole thing up. The “threat to the Constitution” would have suddenly been transformed into comedy, Woodward and Bernstein would into a pair of easily manipulated doofuses, national media would have been unveiled as stupid and credulous, and the Democrats into whiners who couldn’t live with reality of the American political system.

So Felt kept his counsel, remaining a shadowy figure with an insulting nickname, enabling Watergate to attain the status of legend. He, and no one else – not Woodward and Bernstein, not Bradlee, not Leon Panetta, or Sam Ervin – remains the central figure of Watergate, without which it could never have happened. He brought it off, credit where credit is due.

But the anti-Trump crowd didn’t see it that way. No – they clearly saw that Felt was left standing when the music stopped. No honors, no bestsellers, no Oscar-winning flicks. Felt remained the odd man out while others collected the rewards.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. The collusion crowd wanted their share of glory. They wanted the NYT Bestseller List. They wanted the cash. They wanted to hobnob with Hillary and Barack. They wanted to appear on Oprah. They wanted prominent mention in the history textbooks. They wanted to be patted on the head.

So there was no secrecy, at least in the long run. James Comey followed the master in leaking certain memos to his good friend Prof. Daniel Richmond, but he didn’t remain in the shadows. He leapt out into the spotlight almost immediately. Comey got his bestseller, but one that was undercut in every particular even as the pages were being turned. Media and movie offers failed to pour in, and Comey now faces a future of endless congressional and Justice Department investigations, ending up he knows not where.

The same course of action certainly occurred to McCabe, Strzok, Ohr, and all the rest. But Comey’s experience has certainly tempered any such hopes. Jack Ketch the hangman never gets invited to dinner, as Felt well knew and this crowd is now learning. Mueller’s report, when it is at last released sometime in the 22nd century, is unlikely to contain any heroes, whatever else it may feature. McCabe and Strzok wound up being fired, and along with the others, are waiting for the next boom to be lowered.

Donald Trump, in the meantime, towers above it all, no evidence against him, no coverup apparent, the opinion and support of his people – real, everyday Americans – solidifying in his favor even under the relentless pounding of the media.   

And in the end Mark Felt, as he has for the past fifty years, has the last laugh.