In 1999, a teenager broke the story of Deep Throat’s identity as W. Mark Felt in a high school history term paper. He got a B on it. Or “something ridiculous like that. The teacher is…an idiot in my opinion,” said Chase Culeman-Beckman to the Journal News of New York in 1999.
How did he figure it out? Chase Culeman-Beckman had attended a posh Long Island summer camp with Carl Bernstein’s son Jacob roughly a decade earlier and had heard Jacob (then all of 8) popping off learnedly about “Mark Felt” as Deep Throat.
“We entered into a very precocious discussion of politics. Somehow the conversation degenerated to talk about Watergate and in a burst of braggadocio, he said that Deep Throat was Mark Felt,” said Culeman-Beckman to the press in 1999. “He said I’m 100 percent sure that Deep Throat is Mark Felt.”
Now that Felt has identified himself as Deep Throat in Vanity Fair, this young man’s “idiot” history teacher owes him a retroactive A+. Showing considerable enterprise, he, according to 1999 New York press accounts, heavily footnoted his 20-page term paper, copyrighted it, attached a two-page bibliography, and went to the trouble of subjecting All the President’s Men to rigorous textual analysis, noting that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had identified their source at one point as My Friend, the initials of Felt’s name.
Carl Bernstein owes his son’s summer camp pal an apology too. Bernstein had conducted a little cover-up after his story reached the press. Judging from his bobbing and weaving in press accounts, Bernstein was sweating. He appeared to be alternately playing dumb, lying, and putting his son up to squashing the story. The Hartford Courant reported that Bernstein “didn’t have time to call Jacob to ask him about it” and asked its reporter innocently, “Is Mark Felt still alive?” Then it looks like Bernstein tried to fake the paper out through lying bluster: “I hate to ruin your story, but Jacob Bernstein has not a clue as to the identity of Deep Throat. Bob and I have been wise enough never to tell our wives, and we’ve certainly never told our children.”
Jacob Bernstein, for good measure, was later trotted out to support this line, telling the press: “At no point did my father Carl Bernstein or Bob Woodward reveal the identity of Deep Throat.”
This 1999 story wasn’t covered very widely, but covered enough that Felt himself was contacted and he lied too. “No, it’s not me,” he said, adding unconvincingly that “I would have done better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”
Director Nora Ephron, former wife of Bernstein and mother of Jacob, was also helpful in confusing the matter, for she had theorized in a 1993 interview that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. So Bernstein could credibly dismiss his son’s summer-school yarn to Culeman-Beckman as just a regurgitation of some “guesswork” his mother (on her own, of course) had shared with him.
Yet a few people, even in 1999, wondered how Bernstein’s son had an obscure name like Mark Felt on the tip of his tongue as an 8-year-old at summer camp. Adrian Havill, author of Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, marveled to the press: “If he’d told [Culeman-Beckman] the name Henry Kissinger, John Dean or even Alexander Haig, they were at least prominent public figures. Mark Felt, by 1988, was long retired and forgotten. How the Bernstein kids [sic] would come up with that name boggles the mind.”
Slate’s “Chatterbox” was doing spadework on this issue in 1999 and correctly suspected Felt of being Deep Throat (Chatterbox gave an assist to James Mann, who had theorized in an Atlantic Monthly article several years earlier that Deep Throat was Felt and certainly a G-man). Chatterbox tracked Culeman-Beckman down and carefully questioned him, which unintentionally helped Bernstein’s cover-up a bit in that Culeman-Beckman acknowledged that he assumed Jacob Bernstein knew of Felt’s identity through his father but didn’t hear him exactly say that.
Vindicated, Culeman-Beckman’s term paper now belongs in the sequel to All the President’s Men. How a high school student got Carl Bernstein lying and sweating like Richard Nixon deserves its own journalistic footnote.