Jewish World Review June 7, 2005 / 29 Iyar 5765

Paul Greenberg

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It's still Nixon's America — Deep Throat brings it all back | The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence . . . . — T.S.

Wh-a-a-t? Mark Felt was Deep Throat? And here all along I thought it was Hal Holbrook. For the Nixon Years long ago took on the look of a classic old movie, specifically a film noir you might run across in the middle of the night on TV and be unable to turn off. You know you really should be getting some sleep, but the story — and the characters! — cast a spell.

It was Bob Dole, that least poetic of politicians, who said it at the Nixon Funeral in 1994, which was a show in itself: The last half-century of American history would be remembered as the Age of Nixon.

Like a lot of things Bob Dole says, it had the unexpected, even unsuspected, ring of uncomfortable truth once spoken out loud. I'd never thought of it that way before.

Usually when people attribute a whole age to someone (The Age of Pericles, The Age of Louis XIV) there is something stately, or heroic, something capital-H History, about the name they choose to define a whole age.

But here was a figure most of us never thought of as towering over his times but rather as the politician who was just always, irritatingly there. Even when he was offstage, Richard Nixon was just waiting for his next improbable entry — and disgraceful exit. If there's such a thing as being polarizing without being in the least charismatic, Richard M. Nixon was that rare thing.

And now He-e's . . . Back! On the front page, complete with all the surviving members of the cast, who are still snarling at each other over who betrayed whom, who was the hero, and who the knave. The man won't stay dead. He insists on shaping these times, too, just as he shaped the way Americans now look at presidents — suspiciously.

To an uncomfortable extent, the times are still, for better or worse or both, nixonian. The clintonesque was only a milder version of the same disingenuous style, the way Bill Clinton was Richard Nixon without any great political issues.

When we judge Richard Nixon, or Mark Felt, we're still saying something revealing about ourselves. So what do you think, was this 91-year-old man on a walker once really a Secret Patriot, or a self-serving stoolie?

Why not both? Mark Felt seems to have had a very mixed bag of motives. And still does. (Gosh, just like the rest of us.)

According to the Authorized Version, he leaked word of a crime in order to get the truth out and uphold the honor of the FBI he'd devoted his life to. He saw The Bureau being manipulated to cover up crimes and so, like the heroic whistleblower he was, he acted to save the agency he loved. And the Republic. (Close curtain to applause.)

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At the same time, here was Mark Felt's chance to take his petty revenge on a president who'd passed him up for the top job. Hey, aren't the rules made to be broken in a good cause? Mark Felt should know; he would be indicted and convicted for a couple of illegal entries himself during the Vietnam years, and, like Richard Nixon, he would be pardoned. And justice would be thwarted.

It's impossible to separate this minor but perhaps key historical figure into neat categories. Just as it is impossible to look on the man who was arguably the most malevolent of American presidents without also seeing the pathos of Richard Nixon's ceaselessly striving life.

What shifting dreams and memories drifted through his mind as he sat there, alone with his thoughts in the White House during his final days there, listening to Richard Rodgers' score for "Victory at Sea" on the stereo? Imagine: To have come so far, to have risen so high, and to have been brought so low, and still to dream/plot on, not like wise old Prospero exiled to his magical isle, but like an Americanized Napoleon on Elba . . . what a fate. Even now he stews and poses in the American memory while the remains of his gang still point fingers at one other, arguing over who's guiltier.

Mark Felt's is a very American story, too. It broke in Vanity Fair — what a perfect name and venue for this kind of story!

Now in his waning years, why shouldn't he pick up a little fame — well, notoriety — and maybe a little cash, too, for telling his secret? Mark Felt's daughter, to quote the story in Vanity Fair, hopes this revelation will produce "at least enough money to pay some bills." Or as Hal Holbrook advised Woodstein in the movie version: "Follow the money."

In short, it is still the Age of Nixon.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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