Deep Throat: The Man, His Voice, and the Mystery of His Anonymity
Joseph Lowther, Administrative Assistant to Chief Judge John Sirica, was the famous informant nicknamed "Deep Throat" in the book All the President's Men. His meetings with reporters for the Washington Post were a key event in the history of the Watergate scandal.
It is little wonder that his nickname was "Deep Throat" -- when he worked as a trial lawyer, Judges would admonish his opponents to "speak up" like Lowther did; for his rich, deep voice was a blessing that gained him respect, curiosity and reverence.
Lowther lost much of that respect in his job at the court due to his controversial badgering in protest of Sirica's handling of the Watergate trials. As noted by the reporters, "He was not good at concealing his feelings, hardly ideal for a man in his position."
Lowther used his voice in a most selfless manner -- he spoke up when someone needed to speak up, he spoke to the right people, he influenced them. The power of his voice, and his love for the Institutions of the U.S. Government, will bring him again the respect he deserves, though the honor is bestowed posthumously.
Lowther met with Woodward and Bernstein as a source for their Watergate stories. Woodward admitted that Lowther was a source, probably realizing that there are still living witnesses to his meetings with him at the court and in his car. Lowther's code of ethics would have prevented him from disclosing sensitive legal information.(1) His mission, however, to inspire a few young journalists to take a chance, to dig deeper, to publish what no others would publish, was successful.
The reporters looked up to him. His age and his deep voice, his proximity to the Chief Judge, his record as a U.S. Assistant Attorney and his knowledge and experience in conspiracy law, his contacts with the FBI and CIA as a liaison for the court, his intelligence background in the OSS, all were reasons for the high esteem in which he was held. His midnight parking garage meetings with them, as the smoking man in a trench coat, added an element of drama to their source -- it may have inspired their sense of danger and wonder at the dark secrets the man was hiding.
If the reporters and their publisher had any doubts about this source, a driving force behind the Watergate stories that were such a risk for the newspaper, they had an insider to vouch for his credibility and integrity. The lawyer for the Washington Post, Edward Bennett Williams, went to the College of the Holy Cross with Lowther. Both men were debaters in this small school in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Lowther did not stop there -- his powerful voice was his weapon. Lowther was a vocal opponent of the policies of Chief Judge Sirica during the Watergate trials. He spread the word to everyone who would listen, that Sirica was a "patsy for the U.S. Attorney, going along with the cover-up". He spoke frankly with the Judge, that he should not take the case (he thought him incompetent), he re-wrote some of the Judge's directives to make corrections as required, and he repeatedly and emphatically encouraged the Judge to treat the case as more than "just another break-in". He used every means possible, including influential sources outside the court, to change the course of the prosecution to look beyond the "break-in" for a cover-up, a broken fulcrum in the balance of powers written into the U.S. Constitution.
In the pin-stripe political world of Washington, there are few who could possibly be candidates for late night meetings in dim parking garages to engage in a discussion of the finer points of conspiracy law -- as Deep Throat was described as doing in All the President's Men. Lowther, a manic-depressive who had recently lost his wife, a lawyer and specialist in the prosecution of conspiracy cases, fits the profile much more readily than, for example, an Alexander Haig or a Patrick Buchanan. John Dean published a recent observation that Deep Throat was probably a lawyer, though he did not know about Lowther.(2)
The similarities in the personality profile in descriptions of Deep Throatdo not stop there. Lowther was a scotch drinker (a heavy drinker), constantly smoked, wore a trench coat, and in fact fits every descriptive characteristic, both in his physical description and in his mannerisms, that was provided in the book that made him a famous entity and a template for Hollywood characters.
Lowther, as a trial lawyer, was an eloquent, erudite speaker. His countenance was typically dour, he did not smile much. His words were often laced with a peculiar, sarcastic and intellectual style of humor, frequently delivered in a mock-condescending tone. A comparison of the transcript of his interviews with a reporter with passages in All the President's Men show the same personality behind the words.(3) His discourse as Deep Throat, where he is quoted as mocking Ronald Ziegler, unquestionably bears the imprint of his comedic digressions. The following quote (p. 77) is also pure Lowther: " 'Let's just say I'll be willing to put the blossoming situation in perspective for you when the time comes.' But there was disgust in the way he said it."
Lowther's role, as described in All the President's Men, can be traced in the passages where he is quoted as Deep Throatin these moments of levity or sarcasm. He is likely the "Justice Department attorney" quoted on p. 128, with the passionate response "These are public servants? God. It's nauseating." Lowther's role is best described on p. 129 as follows: "Bernstein tried thinking as Woodward would. What did he have? ...There was no evidence, beyond a Justice Department lawyer's angry reactions."
Lowther died in obscurity in a nursing home in Florida eight years ago, and this fact is, at first glance, a roadblock. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post has repeatedly asserted that Throat is still alive.
This is not the first time that Woodward's statements have been questioned. Adrian Havill, for instance, has published evidence that the use of a flower pot and a newspaper as signals to summon Deep Throat, as described in the book, are physically impossible.(4) A recent study on the identity of Deep Throat by journalism students at the University of Illinois originally stated that the results of the study would be based on the facts presented in All the President's Men -- yet their candidate, Patrick Buchanan, has almost none of the characteristics of the Deep Throat character in the book.(5) The students were thus convinced that portions of the book were contrived.
Many writers on the topic of Watergate have assumed that Deep Throat is either a literary fabrication or a composite -- both of these theories are at odds with Woodward's statements about the character. With the growing list of journalists and historians who question the facts presented by the Post's reporters on the Watergate story, the assumption that Deep Throat is still alive should also be questioned. It would certainly be a good explanation as to why he hasn't come forward.
Chuck Coleson said "If I was Deep Throat, I would come forward and collect my $10 million for literary and movie rights."(6) It really does not make sense that such an important person would intentionally remain anonymous for thirty years. Though the concept that Deep Throat is dead may be a bit of a shock now; every year, on June 17, the same question will be asked -- "Is he still alive?"
And if Deep Throat is not alive, there are other misconceptions about him as well. Some claim that he was not a major source for much of the information reported by the Washington Post on the Watergate cover-up. Havill stated "He was just a very minor character in the original manuscript. . . . Alice Mayhew [the editor of All the President's Men] advised them to build the character of Deep Throat and make him more interesting."(7) Carl Bernstein, in an interview with the Sunday Herald from his Manhattan office, said "'It's important to remember the individual known as Deep Throat primarily confirmed information we obtained from other sources." Barry Sussman, former city editor of the Washington Post, on the topic of the identity of Deep Throat, writes: "The Post's managing editor, Howard Simons, the driving force in our Watergate coverage, didn't ask. Neither did a third editor, Harry Rosenfeld. They didn't ask for the same reason I didn't. It's because Deep Throat was basically unimportant to our coverage."(8)
In 1994, a Baltimore Sun journalist called Woodward to ask if he knew Lowther. After an initial denial, Woodward responded - "...Yes, Lowther had informed to him but he was only a third or fourth degree informant."(9)
Lowther, when asked about his meetings with Woodward and Bernstein, replied, "I held back on them...because I didn't trust the dear boys."(10)
A third misconception, that Deep Throat had to have worked in the White House, is driven by the statement in All the President's Men that Throat was from the Executive Branch. What the book really says, that he was a member of that branch, does not specifically state that he worked in the White House. Lowther, during points in his career, did receive his paycheck from that branch of government.
The White House connection is commonly investigated because it is the most logical place for an informant to have found out about famous gap in the Nixon tapes and leaked it to the press. The identity of the person who leaked this information is not necessarily the same as the identity of Deep Throat, though he could have verified the information after the court received the tapes. The reporters on this story said they used many sources.
If the man did not work in the White House, what information would he have? Plenty. Arrest warrants, subpoenas, evidence, testimony, these are all routinely funneled through the Judiciary. A judge is usually required to approve and review the actions of law enforcement. Lowther may have, for example, learned of the arrest in connection with the attempted assassination of George Wallace before the press. The White House only received a portion of all this.
Nixon instructed his men to order the FBI to "back off" the Watergate investigation just days after the burglars were arrested. Lowther, as liaison to the FBI for the court, was in a position to note the lukewarm response from the FBI - the limited scope of information they were providing to the court.
Lowther could observe the narrow focus of the prosecution, that this was "just another burglary," driven by the U.S. Attorney who reported to Nixon.
Lowther's boss, the Chief Judge, a beneficiary of Republican favors, also limited the scope of the trial, and delayed it until after the election, a position Lowther vehemently opposed.
With Nixon in charge of all the players, it would seem unlikely that he would get caught. Lowther, from behind the scenes, changed the course of the Watergate trial. He influenced the actions of the judge, the press, and ultimately, the nation.
Why haven't we heard of this man before now? Lowther met with me and a reporter just before he died, and expectations were high that he would shed some insight on his role as an informer. At the time of this meeting; however, Lowther was measuring the time he was allowed to have his first beer of the day by "when the little hand is on the 10 and the big hand is on the 12."(11) His story was not generally accepted.
As a modern legend, in the celebrity-driven world of the media, most expect that Deep Throat must be a high-level politician, or a White House employee. The Judiciary and the FBI did most of the work in the prosecution of the president, but even the most famous lawyers are not usually celebrities. If the trial had been covered on television, like the O.J. Simpson trial, the newspaper coverage of this event would not have been as important (this is not an endorsement for television in the courtroom). The lawyers, on television, would have been the heroes.
The efforts by the Post and its reporters to "protect their sources" continues after thirty years. There could be "supersources" out there, living or dead, who have been promised anonymity in exchange for their information. Deep Throat was a personality, a real person used as a literary device to sell a story. He verified information leaked to the press by others. He has provided a shield, a decoy, for other sources. Though the hunt for these sources continues, the hunt for Deep Throat is over.
A larger issue in the search for the true story on Watergate is our obligation to write the history of the United States with a measure of accuracy. If the facts were distorted in order to sell a story, or protect a source, would a full disclosure of the facts later on cause the public to lose respect for the press? Would the public be forgiving, thankful that our history has not been compromised, or would they be outraged that they were misled?
Some would say Nixon could have been truthful from the beginning about the White House connections to the Watergate break-in, and he would have been forgiven. It appears that the Watergate mess is still not over, that there are still secrets out there, and the secrets are like lurking ghosts that moved out of the White House and into the press room.
If the reporters are keeping this a secret to protect a source, why did they then write about "Deep Throat" in the first place, telling his story in their book, in violation of Woodward's alleged agreement (see p. 71) to Deep Throatto "never quote the man, even as an anonymous source"? Imagine that a reporter had promised you anonymity, only to find yourself played on the big screen as Hal Holbrook in a blockbuster hit movie. Lowther said he did not request anonymity.
The paragraph on page 71 also states that Woodward's source known as Deep Throat was in the Executive branch. The entire paragraph would appear to have been written by Bernstein, as he names Woodward in the third person. Perhaps the assumptions about Deep Throat in this paragraph are a simple mistake, or written purposely to throw the reader off the trail. The original manuscript shows notations in the margin which document a deliberate attempt by the authors to hide the identity of Deep Throat.
Clark R. Mollenhoff, Professor of Journalism at Washington and Lee University, wrote the following opinion in reference to the use of anonymous sources: "While I am not ruling out the possibility that there are occasions when it might be essential to quote an anonymous source in a controversial news story, it should be done sparingly. It must not be done impetuously, but must be done with careful consideration of all questions of ethics and news policy."(12) He implies that the Janet Cooke Scandal (the story "Jimmy's World" about an eight year old heroin addict, which was published as fact but was really pure fiction) is the product of a legacy promoted by Woodward's use of Deep Throat.
Any book placed on the history shelf at libraries is automatically subject to further study and verification. The facts in such a book must stand on their own merit. Living witnesses to history, primary sources of information, are the best source of evidence for reporting the facts. Living witnesses have verified the information presented in this article.
Thirty years have passed since the original Watergate break-in. Many living witnesses are now gone. With each passing year, it will become more difficult to resolve the gaps in our history. Like the 18 1/2 minute gap on the Watergate tapes, our history could be deliberately erased from memory.
Lowther's importance is apparent in his contributions. His selfless actions helped preserve the integrity of our institutions. Though Deep Throat was used by the reporters, the reporters were also used by him, and his own voice was joined by others when the newspapers took a chance and followed his lead. It is not enough to label him a "third or fourth tier source"; his actions had a great impact on history. Lowther's Deep Voice continues to resound.
1 Fraser Smith, In Search Of Deep Throat, article, Regardie's, July - August,
2 John W. Dean , What If Deep Throat - Woodward's Watergate Source - Was a Lawyer? article on findlaw.com, July 17, 2002
3 Tom O'Malley, Deep Throat, Fact or Fiction, last two chapters of the book (WPI Inc., e-book version, First Edition, 2002)
4 Mark Y Herring, Deep Dodo, article, copyright 1994 Mark Y. Herring, on Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, by Adrian Havill (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993)
5 William Gaines, Finder's guide to Deep Throat, article, W. Gaines, Knight Chair professor of investigative and enterprise reporting at the University of Illinois
6 Steve Dunleavy, Deep Revelation A Shallow Prank, article, Wed Jun 19, 4:01 AM ET, New York Post
8 Barry Sussman, Watergate, 25 Years Later, Myths and Collusion, article posted on Watergate.Info
9 O'Malley, p. 96
10 O'Malley, p. 138
11 Fraser Smith article
12 Clark R. Mollenhoff , Weighing Sources, Anonymous and Otherwise, The Fiction of Janet Cooke and the Pulitzer Prize Surprise, article, Nieman Reports, The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Summer 1981 (re-printed in Double Issue.Vol. 53 No. 4 Winter 1999, Vol. 54 No. 1 Spring 2000)
Copyright © Tom O'Malley, July, 2002 All Rights Reserved
To reprint this article, simply write the author at email@example.com
comments powered by Disqus
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- Researchers have discovered a previously unknown 149-page manuscript defending homosexuality.
- What Counts as Historical Evidence? The Fracas over John Stauffer’s Black Confederates
- Israeli journalist-turned-biographer, Shabtai Teveth, is remembered for his attack on the New Historians
- Harvard’s Drew Faust says the Civil War marked the start of large-scale industrial war, not WW I