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"He Put America First."

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Ken Duberstein is a mensch.

Who's he and why say that?

Duberstein, for those who don't know, is currently a Washington lobbyist, CEO of the eponymously named Duberstein Group. But, more significantly, he was Ronald Reagan's last chief of staff after then-Sen. Howard Baker stepped in to to replace the Nancy-sacked Don Regan. And, it is because of that position that he has a unique perspective on the Mark Felt/"Deep Throat" saga.

Some quick background: Frankly, I tired rather quickly of the retrospective Watergate media orgy of the last few days. Aside from Woodward and Bernstein, we've heard from Nora Ephron (legitimate, at least), plus All The President's Men. actors such as Robert Redford and Hal Holbrook (what, no Harry Reems? Is any discussion of "Deep Throat" complete without Harry Reems?). I jadedly passed this off as just another navel-gazing press exercise, with distinctive generational implications, i.e. the regular Baby Boomer self-congratulatory dance that pops up every few months or so.

Okay, well that's it then. Unfortunately, otherwise smart Republicans can't just let it go at that. Instead, in lashing out at the liberal/media lionization once more of Woodward and Bernstein's greatest moment, they feel the need to character assassinate Mark Felt and portray a Richard Nixon that never existed.

Both Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein and Reagan scribe Peggy Noonan essentially say that Felt's participation in the overthrow of Stein's "peacemaker" and "weakened" Noonan's "serious president at a serious time" thus helping pave a direct pathway for Cambodian and Vietnamese genocide. For each of them, presidential lying is no big thing. For Noonan, what's wrong with a few "dirty tricksters" in the White House when compared to the monstrous despots that were allowed to flourish?

The answer to that sentiment and that question can be found in the words of Ken Duberstein. In the course of reading many newspapers and web-sites this morning, something that Duberstein said caught my eye. Yet, as often happens in our media-mad world, I couldn't remember where I read it. It was something along the lines that Felt saw his duty and followed it.

After finally giving up on finding it, I called Duberstein's office. He graciously took my call and said, that his statement was that "Felt is a hero." In not-exactly-easy circumstances, "He put America first." (I eventually found the original quote; it's right here.)

Duberstein said that, in reading all the media reports of the last few days, he put himself back in his shoes as White House chief of staff. He thought, with the information Felt had in front of him, "What options did he have?" "He couldn't go to the White House Chief of Staff (Haldeman or Ehrlichman); he couldn't go to the Justice Department (John Mitchell); he couldn't go to the White House Counsel (John Dean). He did something responsible. The congressional committees hadn't been formed yet. What do you do? Felt put America first."

Duberstein's words are unintentionally ironic, given that "America first" is the slogan and philosophical principle that governs Nixon partisan Patrick Buchanan's contemporary political outlook. Buchanan, departing from the neoconservative view of foreign policy, says that America should act in its own clearly defined national interests rather than pursuing what he would see as Wilsonian adventures. Buchanan considers Felt's behavior "treacherous."

What Watergate should still tell us -- but Stein, Noonan and Buchanan appear to willfully ignore -- is that a corrupt administration is dangerous. Men in the Nixon administration went to jail, not just for "dirty tricks," but for multiple break-ins (which, it is true, Felt also did in the FBI's pursuit of violent radical groups), misusing the CIA for political ends, payoffs, cover-ups, etc. These actions, committed domestically, had reverberations around the globe.

This was a high-level criminal conspiracy, whose members were willing to destroy personally and professionally any and all who crossed them.

How much did the president know? We may never know. But the fact is that a criminal enterprise was run out of the West Wing of the White House. If Richard Nixon was ousted because of this, then it was those who committed the crimes that bear responsibility for everything that came afterwards. It wasn't Mark Felt's fault that Nixon was no longer around to prevent the fall of Vietnam or genocide in Cambodia.

Neither too was it the fault of Woodward, Bernstein, Sam Ervin, John Sirica, Archibald Cox, Eliot Richardson or any of the other figures who either worked to find out what went on or tried to prosecute those responsible.

The fault lies with Nixon. The fault lies with all the president's men.

Are Felt's motives suspect because he was upset that he was passed over to succeed J. Edgar Hoover? Perhaps, but it wasn't just that Felt wanted the top job. It was also that he believed that someone coming from the White House would be more likely beholden to the White House than to the Bureau -- which is exactly what happened with Nixon's pick L. Patrick Gray, who ended up resigning for destroying evidence.

Ken Duberstein has very strong Republican Party ties. He is a self-described "Nixon loyalist." Yet, he can still recognize what was at stake in 1972 and why Mark Felt did what he did.

And that's why Ken Duberstein is a mensch. Stepping above party, he, too, can put America first.

UPDATE: Corrected 6/04/05 to clarify time period of Duberstein's tenure as WH COS.