When I first moved to my neighborhood from another state, I was amazed when the shopkeeper at the dry cleaner’s learned my name within just a few visits. I had only been living there for a couple of weeks when one day, I swung open the door and she looked up and smiled.
“Hi, Mr. Rourke!” she sang out. It made me feel welcome in a strange new town.
The shopkeeper now has help because business is good; I rarely see her. They have updated their systems, too. They have a machine that fills out the laundry ticket for them. In order for the clerk to access it, they need my telephone number.
I have been visiting this dry cleaner for years now. I have a deep loyalty and wouldn’t imagine visiting another.
But over those years I have gone from being a name and a face – to a number.
Paradoxically, this is all because the dry cleaner wants to know more about me in order to do a better job.
Armed with my phone number, the clerk need not ask me whether I want my shirts with medium starch and folded in a box this time. It’s all right there on the screen. I am in and out of there in less than three minutes. Progress.
But they don’t know my name anymore, and don’t sing out when I enter. The information they have about me has gotten in the way of their knowing who I am.
Someone else lost their identity recently, under the lash of the same sort of paradox. In our effort to know more about someone, we are now in danger of understanding less.
Deep Throat has been stripped of his name and is now to be referred to as some fellow called “W. Mark Felt.”
I knew Deep Throat because I understood the purpose he served in that ancient drama called Watergate. Now, Mark Felt will take his place in the cast of other mere mortals who played roles.
His motivations and morals are already under scrutiny, his work history uncovered, his family probed. There will be books. We are learning more about the man, just as my dry cleaner knows more about me.
But this information stands in the way of our knowledge. The role Deep Throat played in the Watergate drama had more to do with the parable than it did with the timeline and history of events.
We take our lessons from history because they are stories that speak to us. The moral courage of Abraham Lincoln and of Martin Luther King, Jr. echoes through the decades.
Biographical details about the human beings who played these towering roles mostly stand in the way of understanding the story.
Watergate, now shrouded in the mists of time, is such an affair. As a parable of corruption and the misuse of power, it rings out.
This parable features an unknown informer, who strikes almost like lightning. Because his true identity is unknown, the story of Watergate can be a more effective parable.
“Future despots,” the parable says, “think twice before your dirty tricks. You never know who or what might trip you up and bring you down.”
It was inevitable that we would learn Felt’s identity. For my part, I applaud his courage in speaking up then, and in speaking up today. In his winter years now, he could have quietly passed, and let events unfold in his absence.
He did not.
But I am wistful for the loss of who he once was.
Deep Throat is no more. History books will now refer to that individual as “W. Mark Felt, who called himself ‘Deep Throat’ to protect his anonymity.”
The parable will gain specificity. The shadowy figure that lurked throughout “All the President’s Men” will need to come out of the shadows of the parking garage where Woodward – in our mind’s eye and on the silver screen – met him.
The enigma, it turns out, was a mentor of sorts. Some may debate how pivotal his role really was. Would the reporters have found out all they did without his advice?
Now that we know just who was doing the advising, history can better judge.
Regardless, the unknown informant is known. His value in the Greek tragedy of Watergate is diminished. No longer capricious as lightning, he is now a man. Like all men, he has more depth and texture than a parable can allow for.
The parable – and the lesson – is a step closer to being dry history.
My daily life is made easier by the dry cleaner’s machinery, but my experience is less rich for it.
As for Watergate, I hope the store of historical data about it can be matched by the poets who sing cautionary tales to the future.
I hope Mr. Felt can remain ‘Deep Throat.’
(c) 2005 The Christian Science Monitor. Used by permission.