Another Con Job

History’s latest con happened right before our eyes, just a week ago. We were watching the nonstop cable news – when suddenly our television screen was transformed into Alice’s Looking Glass.

All reality was backwards. But perhaps only the old-timers knew it, being old enough to recognize the faces that popped up on our looking-glass/screen _ and remember their criminal rap sheets.

Richard Nixon’s ex-convicts _ who did prison time for crimes against our democracy, then turned their crimes into profits by writing books and becoming celebrities _ had returned to work one more con. Nixon’s White House’s special counsel, Charles Colson, and burglar-in-chief, G. Gordon Liddy, rode the cable news circuit, voicing moral indignation _ shock and outrage! _ at the revelation that the FBI’s deputy director, Mark Felt, was Deep Throat. He was the source who fed facts to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, truths that ultimately drove the disgraced president from office and landed his henchmen in the slam.

“I was shocked because I worked with him closely,” Colson said with wide eyes and a straight face, on MSNBC’s Hardball. “And you would think the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, you could talk to with the same confidence you could talk to a priest.”

Then on CNN: “I was shocked, because … I talked to him often and trusted him with very sensitive materials. So did the president. To think that he was out going around in back alleys at night looking for flowerpots, passing information to someone, it’s just so demeaning. It’s terribly disappointing. It’s not the image of the professional FBI that you would expect.”

Ah, image. Conjure this image of his own professionalism, conceded by Colson on MSNBC: In the Oval Office, Nixon orders Colson and others to burglarize the Brookings Institution, a Washington tank where many ex-official Democrats think. (Nixon twice also ordered the firebombing of Brookings, his tape recordings reveal.)

Meanwhile on CNN, Liddy was also gassing aghast about Felt: “I view him as someone who violated the ethics of the law enforcement profession.” On MSNBC, Liddy, who plotted the burglary and bugging of the Democrat headquarters at the Watergate building, bragged: “I planned the Brookings break-in.” It wasn’t done, Liddy said _ “too expensive.”

Of course, not all in the Nixon White House were criminals. So when Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan appeared on our looking-glass/screens, some viewers may have expected a refreshing, ruminative perspective about Mark Felt and Watergate. Then Buchanan spoke: “I think he’s a snake.”

Buchanan explained: “I think what he did is deeply dishonorable and shameful. Here is an individual who has taken an oath and who is part of a major investigation, who is running around, sneaking around at night leaking things to damage the president of the United States in the middle of a campaign. And I don’t see what is heroic about someone who did that.”

The sound you hear is the sound of one journalistic mind boggling. Because this was never about heroics, just a helping hand, high and inside. All of us who were journalists investigating Watergate _ from many news organizations that unearthed a share of the scoops _ understand the importance of having the FBI’s No. 2 man on call, willing to confirm things we’d heard yet couldn’t quite prove.

Lost in the wailings of Nixon’s men is the thing Americans need to know about Felt’s Watergate dilemma. Felt couldn’t go to his boss: J. Edgar Hoover had just died and was replaced by an unqualified Nixon loyalist, L. Patrick Gray III, who promptly destroyed some documents and slipped others to officials running the White House cover-up. Felt couldn’t go to the attorney general: John Mitchell, as AG, presided over the Watergate burglary planning; when he became Nixon’s campaign manager, his replacement was another Nixon loyalist not trusted by many FBI hands. Felt couldn’t go to congressional investigators: the Senate Watergate Committee didn’t exist yet. Felt certainly couldn’t go to Nixon. So he helped a young reporter friend, Bob Woodward.

Now these Nixon criminals popped up on our looking-glass/screens, wailing like pro wrestlers, pounding the mat in feigned pain.

Yet occasionally, even they told a truth. As when Liddy _ who went from jail to Hollywood, from burglary to talk radio _ said on MSNBC: “There’s great life after Watergate.”

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)