Sunday, June 05, 2005
Admission brings back memories
Read Shanna's blog
Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.
"I remember thinking, 'This is going to be pretty serious,'" Rugaber, then a reporter in The New York Times' Washington bureau, said last week. "'This is not some two-bit burglary. These guys were well-dressed. They had rubber gloves on.' I guess the current cliche is, 'This story is going to have legs.'" Then, as now, Rugaber's instincts were on point. The story that toppled a presidency, caused Americans to question their government and consumed Rugaber's life for nearly a year as he covered it, continued its reverberations last week when the man known for decades as "Deep Throat" revealed his identity.
Rugaber, 66, said he was not surprised by former FBI official Mark Felt's revelation but was "somewhat fascinated at how much interest there has been in it."
"I know it was one of the biggest stories of the generation," he said Friday during a phone conversation from the Meadows of Dan spread he shares with his wife, Sally. "It's been a national guessing game all these years. Naturally, when the answer is revealed, it's going to be a big story."
Rugaber said the disclosure by Felt, now 91, was not unexpected because the ex-No. 2 man at the FBI had been on "lots of short lists" as the long-anonymous source of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who, along with reporter Carl Bernstein, broke the Watergate story.
Rugaber said he met Felt once during routine reporting before Watergate. But the former publisher said his No.1 choice early on to be Deep Throat - which he good-naturedly conceded no one else shared - was Richard Kleindienst, U.S. attorney general at the time.
"He was an Arizona, Barry Goldwater-type Republican," Rugaber noted. "Those guys had very straight-arrow reputations." Kleindienst, he figured, would leak information because he "just didn't like seeing what was going on."
But Rugaber said that in hindsight, Kleindienst would have had too much to lose professionally as the No.1 man at the Department of Justice to be Deep Throat.
However, Felt makes sense, Rugaber said, because he had access to the information to feed tips to Woodward.
News accounts that Felt and his family shopped his story around "put a very unfortunate final spin on things," Rugaber said, but "I would come down on the side" that says Felt's actions three decades ago to help uncover government corruption were "in the best American tradition."
As for the speculation over the years that the Post reporters made up Deep Throat, that he or she was a composite of individuals, Rugaber said he never doubted the authenticity of the source.
"That was such a sensational story, they didn't need to make anything up," he chuckled.
For nearly a year after the Watergate story broke in June 1972, it was the only story for Rugaber, who covered it for The New York Times.
"It was some of the hardest work I ever did. It was seven days a week," he said. "It was an extremely competitive state of affairs. It was intense. You naturally wanted to get all the scoops. The world being what it is, you're not going to get all the scoops."
Woodward and Bernstein gained fame and wealth as the tag-team duo that took down a president, and they deserve all the kudos and credit they received, Rugaber said.
But he added that while the Post reporters led the way, coverage of Watergate "was not quite as one-sided as the popular impression quickly became."
"One of the myths is that all the establishment newspapers - The New York Times and others - ignored Watergate," he said. "Not just The New York Times but a lot of other people broke very important stories."
Not quite a year later after Watergate broke, Rugaber was promoted to an editor job with The Times.
Rugaber reflected on the Watergate era and noted some of the unorthodox occurrences - such as routine grand jury leaks - and risky reporting techniques that helped uncover the story.
"While there were things you wouldn't want to see done today," he said, "the system worked."