THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
As far as John O’Connor is concerned, what many consider to be contemporary journalism’s finest hour was actually its death knell.
Watergate has always aroused passions. But Mr. O’Connor isn’t just some sideline crank venting against the status quo. He was Deep Throat’s attorney.
“Why is everything called ‘gate?’” he asked from his California home. “Up to Watergate, journalism was mostly ‘who, what, where and when.’ Since Watergate, you’ve got a lot of [baby] boomers who want to bring down the ‘bad guy.’ But they have ideology on their brains and now they wear partisan jerseys; they’re on a team.”
Mr. O’Connor, 74, was never a stranger to politics. A devout Roman Catholic, he and his six siblings grew up in Indianapolis with a father whose small law firm was well-connected. One of its four partners was William Ruckelshaus, the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned as a U.S. attorney during President Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.”
Little did Mr. O’Connor know then the role the Watergate scandal would play in his professional career.
Watergate, however, wasn’t his first high-profile case.
One day while he was working as a U.S. attorney in the San Francisco office, a member of the bank robbery unit strolled by and tossed a black-and-white photo onto his desk.
“What do you think that is?” he asked.
Mr. O’Connor studied the photo carefully and said, “Well, it looks like Patty Hearst.”
“Well, it looks like Patty Hearst just robbed a bank,” his fellow prosecutor replied.
The bank robbery shocked the nation. Ms. Hearst, heir to the Hearst publishing empire, was toting a machine gun alongside members of the leftist revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army.
Mr. O’Connor’s involvement in the case led to a handful of assignments so plum that some of his colleagues resented it. He handled much of Ms. Hearst’s Fifth Amendment pleadings, as well as various psychiatric matters that arose in her novel Stockholm syndrome defense.
“I probably know every dream Patty ever had,” Mr. O’Connor said.
He was in Washington as Watergate unfolded. Hooked by the drama, he followed the developments with intense interest. After Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published “All the President’s Men,” he would take his copy of the book to a coffee shop and parse every paragraph.
In the end, through what he attributed to his prosecutorial instincts and his familiarity with many of the Justice Department and FBI players, he said, he concluded that Mark Felt was the source known as “Deep Throat.”
“I’m a great lover of the press and its function, and so I dug into it to figure out who ‘Deep Throat’ was,” he said. “I knew it couldn’t have been a junior FBI guy because not many people had access to grand jury stuff.
“I knew he felt he could be a part of the cover-up or he could bust the cover-up.”
Years later, through a series of coincidences involving Mr. O’Connor’s daughter and Felt’s granddaughter, who both attended Stanford University, the two men became close acquaintances.
“His knuckles would stand out white on the chair when I brought up ‘Deep Throat,’” said Mr. O’Connor, adding that he carefully avoided asking Felt whether he was the source.
Felt eventually came clean, feeling rejuvenated in the process, and Mr. O’Connor became his attorney and agent.
“On some level, he thought people might see him as a disloyal rat, but I told him all of us young guys had thought he was a hero because he was protecting the FBI, the institution,” Mr. O’Connor said.
By 2002, when Mr. O’Connor said Mr. Woodward declined to participate with Felt on a book about what happened, Felt felt betrayed.
Felt died in 2008, but he spent the last years of his life happy with family and the close circle who knew his secret.
The entire experience infuriated Felt and eventually inspired Mr. O’Connor to write “Postgate: How the Washington Post Betrayed ‘Deep Throat,’ Covered Up Watergate and Began Today’s Partisan Advocacy Journalism.”
The title echoes loudly across today’s Washington landscape of Russiagates and Ukrainegates.
“It is an indictment of the current media environment,” Mr. O’Connor said. “They think of themselves as so important, they think they are responsible for outcomes. They decided to go after a guy. Wait a minute, this is journalism?”
No doubt some readers will be perplexed by the idea that The Washington Post, which broke most of the Watergate stories, “covered up” the event.
Here is where Mr. O’Connor, who said he relies on personal knowledge, has a grand cloak-and-dagger tale involving CIA operations and a prostitution ring, active around the Watergate Hotel at the time and common knowledge to Washington insiders.
There was the break-in, which is a crime, and there was the CIA operation on U.S. soil, which is also a crime, in Mr. O’Connor’s telling. Led by The Post and fixated on getting a president, the press provided the public with only part of the story, he said.
It’s been downhill ever since, culminating in the extraordinary situation in this year’s presidential race as the press drags one candidate to the finish line while trying to bury the other, Mr. O’Connor said.
“Joe Biden has made more than $15 million in the past few years?” I don’t know. Maybe people like to talk to Joe for his astute observations on things,” he said.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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