Posts Tagged ‘History’

Legend of The Fall

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Last month, far from his old D.C. stomping grounds, a very old W. Mark Felt, Sr., died quietly in Santa Rosa, California. The press, who had known him as the dashing, silver-haired spook dubbed Deep Throat, portrayed this as a major event, the passing of one of the late 20th century’s most influential figures. The New York Times remembered him as the man who “helped bring down President Richard M. Nixon by resisting the Watergate cover-up and becoming Deep Throat, the most famous anonymous source in American history.” Across the Pond, the Guardian’s obituary only heightened the legend. “Long after memories of Linda Lovelace’s pornographic film have vanished,” it wrote, “Felt will live on in American political history as Deep Throat, the mysterious insider whose leaks to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought well-deserved ruin to the Nixon presidency.”

In no small part because of Hal Holbrook’s goggle-eyed, cotton-mouthed portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, we’ve come to think of Deep Throat in these romantic terms: as the mystery man feeding rounds into Woodward and Bernstein’s gumshoe guns. That was in 1976. Nixon had resigned, the bad guys had gone to jail or had been publicly shamed, the movie won four Oscars, and still no one knew who Deep Throat was. So a large and devoted gaggle of politicians, journalists, and scholars began to guess at Deep Throat’s identity. Then they began to obsess over it, doubling back on every possible hypothesis, and Deep Throat’s legend ballooned. “A lot of awfully intelligent people made awful fools of themselves,” says Slate’s Timothy Noah, who, until Deep Throat’s outing, was an active participant in the guessing game. A bemused Woodward told me that, over the years, he’s received scores of PhD and masters dissertations trying to uncloak Deep Throat once and for all. It took three decades for Felt to come out and put an end to (most of) the speculation.

But this most anonymous of sources was not nearly as important to Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting–or to Nixon’s demise–as we have come to believe. He was useful, yes, but the Washington Post staffers who midwifed the Watergate story readily admit that he was just one of many, many sources, some of whom are still anonymous. In fact, the entire editorial team did not know about Deep Throat’s identity until after Nixon resigned. To them, Deep Throat was not the man who helped two reporters fell a crooked president, but just one piece of a huge and dynamic puzzle.

“Don’t think for a second that if Deep Throat was so important, Ben Bradlee wouldn’t have asked who he was,” Barry Sussman, Woodward and Bernstein’s direct editor on the Watergate articles, told me recently. (Today, Bradlee, the Post’s former executive editor, says he didn’t ask because Deep Throat was usually right. “Being right is what you care about in a source,” he explained. “If he was caught way off base telling a lie, then I would’ve asked. I would’ve throttled Woodward.”)

The Post had a two-source rule for the investigation–that is, every bit of information had to be corroborated–but Deep Throat was never one of them. He was rarely the one to approach Woodward; he didn’t offer documents or leads or even many details; he spoke in code and disappeared for long stretches of time. For the most part, he was a check on information Woodward and Bernstein had already cobbled together. “He was important, but the story could’ve been done without him,” says former metro editor (and Sussman’s boss) Harry Rosenfeld. “It wasn’t like any story stood or fell by what he told us.”

“I think his nickname elevated him into history more than his actual contribution,” Bradlee says. Thirty-odd years later, he is still baffled and delighted by the naughtiness of the moniker. “It’s extraordinary that it caught on. I mean, the average person had not seen the movie, I guess, and did not know that we were talking about oral intercourse here!”

On the two Woodward and Bernstein stories that made the biggest difference in the Watergate investigation, Deep Throat was of little help. The first was an August 1, 1972, piece about how Nixon reelection funds had been deposited to the account of one of the Watergate burglars. This was Woodward and Bernstein’s big break on Watergate, the first to link the burglary to the White House, and it launched an investigation by the GAO (which was largely ignored). The tip, however, had come not from Deep Throat, but a story in The New York Times. After reading the story, Bernstein flew down to Miami and plied the local investigator into showing him the burglar’s phone and bank records. The FBI had looked into this weeks earlier, but Deep Throat had kept mum.

The second was an October 10 article on Donald Segretti, a foot soldier in Nixon’s army of dirty tricksters. Before the story ran, Woodward met with Deep Throat to see if the story’s allegations were true. Deep Throat confirmed that the Post was right about Segretti, but hinted that there were more like him and that the rot reached wide and high, up to the very top of the administration. A pretty vague and useless hint for the reporters on deadline, but such were Deep Throat’s ways.

Even Felt, back when he was still denying that he was Deep Throat, told the Hartford Courant that, had he actually been Deep Throat, he would’ve “done it better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

A good question. If Deep Throat didn’t bring the president down, what did he do?

Deep Throat, it turns out, was more of a vague guide than a fount of contraband information. “He didn’t just say, ‘Go into the office, open the third door on the left, and under the desk you’ll find something,'” says Bradlee. “But he pointed them in the right direction and gave guidance. He saved them all sorts of time and energy.” Deep Throat’s biggest impact was in the beginning of the beginning of the Watergate saga, before the machinery of an FBI investigation and Congressional inquiry took over the job of putting pressure on the White House. When news of the break-in first surfaced in June 1972, it was thought to have been a rogue operation and most news outlets quickly dropped the story. Woodward cajoled a very reluctant Mark Felt into hinting that the break-in was not an isolated incident, so Woodward and Bernstein, two relatively inexperienced city reporters, figured they should keep going. And so, as Nixon was actively trying to stuff the matter under the rug, the Post was able to keep the public spotlight trained on the administration long enough for Senator Sam Ervin to take notice and set up a Congressional inquiry. (The FBI had been investigating the break-in since the beginning, but the extent was largely unknown to the public.) “The information they got from Deep Throat gave Woodward and Bernstein the confidence and credibility to keep going and to create a climate that would allow for a Senate Watergate investigation and special prosecutor,” says Timothy Naftali, the director of the Nixon Presidential Library.

But Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was not what ultimately brought down Nixon; it was the famous “smoking gun” tape in which the president voiced his intent to snuff out the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in–and that didn’t come out until August 1974, after months of bruising hearings and a Supreme Court decision. On August 9 of that year, two years since the initial burglary, Nixon finally resigned–the result of all the little hatchets of the government’s investigative and judicial agencies slowly chipping away at the hydra’s many necks. And Deep Throat had little to do with that.

“I think that the press minimized the role of the government and the power of subpoenas and the threat of prison and all the things the Justice Department can do to people to say, ‘Unless you testify, you’re going to wind up in prison,'” says Edward Jay Epstein, a writer who was one of the first to investigate the role of the press in exposing Watergate.

Woodward, too, admits that Deep Throat’s role in taking down Nixon has been exaggerated, but he doesn’t think it was negligible. “The accurate answer is, we played a role in a certain period, very early on, in finding out what happened,” Woodward says in his soft, serious voice. On the line from his Post office where he is most days of the week, he is frustrated that his source, protected by the sacrosanct code of confidentiality, became the subject of a glib parlor game. “Deep Throat was invaluable, but, you know, he wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg coming in with a grocery cart full of documents and Pentagon Papers.”

Soup to Nettles

Monday, August 4th, 2008

In 1861, the year Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, Elena Molokhovets published her domestic bible, “A Gift to Young Housewives, or the Means of Lowering Household Expenses.” She explained how to feed the servants, how to pick the freshest meat, how to measure precisely in a culture that still cooked by instinct, how to plan six hundred meals of varying attendance, cost, and life-cycle significance. (A breakfast for one’s name day, for example, should include a turkey galantine, a cold French pâté, a well-sauced duck or goose, beef tongue, fried foul, rice, radishes, two salads, pastries, coffee, rum, and, of course, more pâté.) A half century later, by the time the Bolsheviks had overthrown Alexander’s heirs, the book had been printed in thirty-odd editions, most of them overseen by Molokhovets herself, all while rearing ten children, writing religious tracts, and running her own hearth with utmost efficiency.

The once ubiquitous and bourgeois “Gift to Young Housewives” all but disappeared in Soviet times, but it resurfaced this summer in Red Hook. Valerie Stivers-Isakova, a young, American, and very pregnant housewife, received it as a gift from the mother of her Russian-born husband, Ivan. Inspired, Stivers-Isakova, a writer, decided to have a Molokhovets-themed dinner party.

First, the menu. For a June dinner “of the first order,” Molokhovets recommends starting with a soup of puréed game or wild mushrooms, accompanied by “strong Spanish wines,” lobster-stuffed pastries, and pirozhki with brains, “served in their shells.” The dinner should then proceed through eight more courses: filet of beef with a knockwurst butter paired with a nice Saint-Julien or a warmed Lafite; sturgeon and potatoes served with a Sauternes or a Chablis; young carrots, turnips, potatoes, and cabbage in a cream sauce, “divided on the platter with strips of pastry”; lobster soufflé; a wild-strawberry Imperial punch; braised capon stuffed with liver and truffles; strawberry ice cream; and, finally, berries with black coffee, tea, and cognac.

After hours of translation, Stivers-Isakova decided to ditch the vegetable dish with what she termed “fancy dough receptacles.” She also figured that she was inviting too many vegetarians to serve so much meat. In the end, she said, “I decided to go for the spirit of the thing.”

She started with the poultry. “We tried to make the veal-stuffed duck, and it was a total disaster! We deboned it, we even sewed it closed, and it just came out looking ridiculous,” Stivers-Isakova recalled, posing, elbows out, in homage to the ill-fated mallard (Recipe No. 894). “Molokhovets just says, ‘Cook till it’s done.’ What does that mean? What vessel do you use? What temperature?”

A peach tart turned out soggy; rice-and-egg pastries too dry. Stivers-Isakova went hunting for nettles at the Union Square Greenmarket, called Court Street butchers looking for kidneys and veal bones, and scoured the Red Hook Fairway for elderberry juice. The nettles were the worst. Six stinging bushels had to be cleaned, boiled, drained, blanched, wrung, chopped, and reduced, finally, to a small pile you could hold in your hand. “I had four pots going,” Stivers-Isakova said. “I had to wear ziplock bags on my hands.”

Stivers-Isakova cooked for three days. When her twelve guests finally arrived, on a Saturday night, the meal got under way with smoked fish (from Russ & Daughters) and pickles (prepared in Russia by Ivan’s mother, using Recipe No. 3,287), accompanied by shots of cold vodka. Cutting into a chicken cutlet (Recipe No. 846), Alix Alferieff Murdoch, a law student, recalled how her Kentuckian mother had tried to re-create a traditional Orthodox Easter dinner for her Russian-émigré husband. “She lost the recipe for kulich”—a dense Easter cake—“and could never remember—was it twenty eggs? Twenty-two eggs?” (Molokhovets, in Recipe No. 2,472, recommends ten.)

After the sorrel-and-nettle soup (Recipe No. 2,032) and fish in champagne aspic (a variation on Recipe No. 1,249), the guests wandered over to look at the Statue of Liberty, visible through the dining-room windows. Anya Ulinich, a writer and a Russian immigrant, tried to give Stivers-Isakova some advice, young housewife to young housewife.

“I really want my kid to speak Russian,” Stivers-Isakova said, balancing a slice of rum torte with jam (Recipe No. 1,944) on her belly. “Ivy says he’s going to speak Russian to the kid, but I don’t believe him. So I’m going to hire a nanny who only speaks Russian.”

“But you know the problem with Russian nannies, don’t you?” Ulinich said. “You need a nanny who speaks no English, and if she speaks no English she’ll be older than you, in which case she’ll become your surrogate mother. She’ll constantly be freaking out: ‘Oh, my God! How can you give the child cold milk straight from the fridge!’ ”

Stivers-Isakova remained confident that she’d build a fine nest, even if it is a hybridized version of the one Molokhovets envisioned. What did she think of the book, in the end?

“It’s an instrument of torture.”

The Many Lives of LOMO

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

Though Lenin’s heirs didn’t quite succeed in exporting the Revolution to the West, they did produce a Trojan horse of sorts. It’s called LOMO, and it’s a small, portable camera you can stash in your tunic pocket, always ready for that candid shot of a fat cat slurping caviar. And though the Soviet Union is long gone, its battalion of Trojan horses continues to multiply under the auspices of an Austrian company called Lomographische AG. Just last month, suspiciously close to the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution, Meg and Jack White, the rock ’n’ roll siblings known as the White Stripes, came out with their very own, limited edition his-and-hers LOMO cameras in — you guessed it — cornea-scorching red.

This marketing ploy is just the latest development in the cult phenomenon known as Lomography, a kind of egalitarian, populist approach to taking pictures and, some would argue, making art. The technique, which is neatly encapsulated in the Lomographer’s mantra of “don’t think, just shoot,” produces blurry, on-the-fly shots that recall the guerilla impressionism of photo vérité. Add to this the garish colors produced by the cameras’ odd focus, alternative film development techniques, and the optional fish-eye lens, and you’ve got yourself an international hipster sensation.

But back before Lomographers were holding world congresses and building “Lomowalls” in European capitals, LOMO was just your typical Soviet enterprise, striving for mechanical excellence despite its map of scars tracing the arc of 20th-century Russian history.

LOMO’s history goes a little something like this.

When it was founded in 1914, the concern manufactured World War I gun sights for under a fittingly belle époque name: the Russian Stockholding Association of Optical and Mechanical Producers (RAOOMP). In 1930, the same year the company was renamed GOMZ, or State Optico-Mechanical Factory, it came out with its first lightweight civilian camera. It continued its operations through the war years, surviving the siege of Leningrad without ceasing its operations for even a day, heroically pumping out badly needed observational optics for the front. After 1962, when it was rechristened LOMO (or Leningrad Optico-Mechanical Amalgamation), the enterprise continued producing video cameras, microscopes and astrophysical instruments, the largest of which, the BTA (or Big Telescope Alt-Azimuthal), had a diameter of 6 meters. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, LOMO had produced over 40 million of the highly portable cameras for which it became famous.

Like Soviet warheads, LOMO cameras proliferated around the globe. It was not until 1992, when two Viennese marketing students found one in a Prague thrift shop that the cameras went truly viral. The duo easily finagled an agreement with LOMO, which by that point was nearing bankruptcy, and the company granted them the sole right to soup up and sell the cameras anywhere outside the former Soviet Union. It took LOMO until 1995 to realize the extent of its blunder and cry foul, at which point St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor, one Vladimir Putin, intervened at the behest of the Austrians. He consoled LOMO with a tax break and befriended the company’s chair, Ilya Klebanov, who would eventually become a deputy prime minister. In the end, Lomographische AG retained “Lomography” as its trademark.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of youths snapping photos, sharing them on myriad web forums, and organizing themselves in underground Lomography clubs, perhaps LOMO’s latest incarnation may prove to be more than a fad.