- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2000

According to the subtitle given Leonard Garment's new book, the identity of Deep Throat, the never-named Nixon administration insider who provided Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with vital details for their Watergate coverage, is "the greatest political mystery of our time."

Oh, please. Even in Washington, where hyperbole was invented, that's quite a stretch. Watergate was almost 30 years ago, and lots more interesting things have happened since. Outside Washington, certainly, except for a few faded Nixonphobes grumbling away in their retirement facilities, hardly anyone cares.

Anyway, most Americans of a certain age, if they think about Watergate at all, know perfectly well who Deep Throat was. He was Hal Holbrook. They saw him in the movie "All the President's Men," whispering creepily to Robert Redford in a parking garage.

It's a fact, though, that there are still people around who feel a driving need to know who Mr. Woodward's anonymous friend dubbed Deep Throat by The Washington Post's managing editor, the late Howard Simmons really was. Mr. Garment, who worked for President Nixon and has been accused of being Deep Throat himself, is obviously one of these. He has written a nonfiction detective story about his efforts to find out.

Mr. Garment has carried out this task with grace, even elegance. In fact, "In Search of Deep Throat" is reminiscent of Josephine Tey's classic "The Daughter of Time," in which Alan Grant, a bedridden homicide detective, researches the question of whether or not Richard III actually ordered the murder of the little princes in the Tower of London.

Grant eventually concludes that the king was innocent, which the reader may or may not accept. But it's his investigation more than his conclusion which makes the story memorable.

The same, though his subject is more plebian, is true of Mr. Garment. His search, including its false starts and disappointments, is so engagingly reported that, as with Alan Grant, we readers root for him to succeed. At the end, we hope he'll present us with a Deep Throat who is both so logical and so unexpected that we'll slap our heads in delight and amazement.

Unfortunately, this being life and not art, it doesn't work out that way.

When Mr. Garment eventually points his finger at John P. Sears III, a political lawyer who for more that 20 years has been a favorite Republican source for Washington journalists, it's perfectly plausible, even persuasive. (Mr. Sears, of course, has denied being Deep Throat.)

But to have "the greatest political mystery" of our time unraveled, only to find at its center someone like John P. Sears III, is anticlimactic. There's not much drama in searching for The Source and finding a well-known and quite ordinary source. It's like learning that the Holy Grail is actually a Styrofoam cup.

To make this story sing, Deep Throat should have been shown to have been Spiro Agnew, or Nixon's trusted valet, or perhaps a Soviet double agent. Acceptable too would have been proof that he wasn't an individual at all, only a composite of Woodward sources. That's what's maintained by among others the Nixon White House aide Charles Colson and Alice Mayhew, the editor of "All the President's Men."

There are a few holes, readily conceded by the author, in Mr. Garment's case against Mr. Sears. One concerns some of the spy-novel communications between source and journalist. Mr. Woodward has said that Deep Throat, to set the time of a meeting between them, would send him handwritten messages inside the copy of the New York Times delivered each day to his apartment.

It defies reality, Mr. Garment suggests, to believe that such unnoticed access to Mr. Woodward's newspaper was routinely possible in a high-security apartment building, especially by an easily identifiable person such as Mr. Sears. But possibly this perplexing detail was just an overly enthusiastic embellishment of the Watergate facts.

Anyway, as Mr. Garment modestly notes, his book isn't the last word. According to Washington dogma, only four people Mr. Woodward, Mr. Bernstein, former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Deep Throat himself know the answer to the riddle for sure, and the journalists have promised not to tell as long as their source is still alive.

A cynic, or a lawyer, might say that when it comes to whom Mr. Woodward met and what was said at those meetings, only Mr. Woodward knows for sure. Mr. Bradlee and Mr. Bernstein can only know what Mr. Woodward told them, and even the putative Deep Throat can't be absolutely sure he was the only one.

So "the greatest political mystery of our time" isn't quite solved yet, and probably won't be until Bob Woodward says it is, perhaps in a forthcoming book.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

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