Black History Month: The Forgotten Hero Who Toppled A President

Hail to the Thief

Here we are.  A new year.  A new February. And the same old Black History Month?   Maybe so if all Black history is confined to is yet another lesson about George Washington Carver and the wonderful things he did with a peanut.   There are more stories to tell and periodically throughout the month, I will tell a few starting with the $80 a week security guard who while working the graveyard shift on June 17, 1972 in the Watergate set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the President of the United States resigning in disgrace. 

A cable television program is allowing viewers to vote on the 100 Greatest Americans of all time.  The name of Frank Wills will not be among of them.  It should be.

On the early morning of June 17, 1972, a security guard named Frank Wills was making his rounds in the Watergate complex in Washington D.C.   Wills came across tape-covered door latches and called the police.  Five men were arrested rifling through the files of the offices of the Democratic National Committee.   The events set in motion led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 1974.

Many of the cast of characters found both fame and notoriety in the scandal that was Watergate.  Nixon would go on to write several books on foreign policy and developed some status as an elder statesman before his death in 1994.  The Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein,  whose investigative journalism helped spark interest in the story went on to write two books about Watergate and saw themselves immortalized in a film, All the President’s Men with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing the two.

Frank Wills had a small part in the movie.  He played himself discovering the taped doors and calling the police.

After 30 years of keeping his identity secret, the family of former Number Two man at the FBI,   Mark Felt, came forward to announce the 91-year-old ex-agent had been Woodward’s main source for Watergate information.   Named after a porn film of the same era, Felt was “Deep Throat,” the insider who helped bring down a corrupt president.

Newspapers, magazines and television programs were abuzz with the exposure of the 30-year mystery of the identity of Washington’s greatest leaker of information.  A news search on Yahoo or Google on “Mark Felt” will come back with several pages of links to stories applauding and criticizing his role in toppling Nixon’s regime.

A search on Yahoo! News for the name of “Frank Wills” yields no results.

"Worship me, you puny mortals!"

Wills wrote no books like Woodward or John Dean or Charles Colson.  He didn’t get a syndicated radio program like G. Gordon Liddy.  He didn’t star in any movies, do television programs or make millions of dollars.  Wills was unable to find steady work and in 2000 died flat broke and destitute in an Augusta, Georgia hospital at the age of 52.

Felt is now being lauded as the ultimate whistle-blower.  He was angry at being passed over to replace J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI by a Nixon loyalist and was motivated by a lust for revenge over reform and good government.   In fact, when one looks at Watergate critically it’s hard to find anyone that was not motivated by self-interest, career advancement, publicity or other less than noble reasons.   Woodward and Bernstein got paid.  Judge John Sirica and Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and Senator Sam Ervin were lionized by the media for the parts they played in bringing down Nixon, but only one guy had no ulterior motives or secret agendas.  .  That was Frank Wills, a black security guard who changed American history by doing his job.

Wills would go on to quit his job as a security guard after his request for a raise was turned down.  At the time of his discovery of the Watergate burglary he was making $80 a week.  For a time he was in demand by reporters and Wills demanded $300 for interviews. His plans to hit the lecture circuit were met with apathetic yawns and were abandoned.

Wills broke the big story but others would profit from it.

Wills had stumbled upon the biggest story in American political history, but he never cashed in on his notoriety.

He worked for the comedian/activist Dick Gregory for a time, but was unable to hold on to steady employment.  Wills told the Washington Post, “I don’t know if they are being told not to hire me or if they are just afraid to hire me.”

He moved home to South Carolina in the mid-Seventies to care for his mother who was impaired from a stroke.  In 1983 he was convicted of shoplifting a pair of sneakers.  At the time of the 25th anniversary of Watergate, Wills spoke to the Boston Globe and said, “I put my life on the line.  If it wasn’t for me, Woodward and Bernstein would not have known anything about Watergate.”

If Wills exaggerated the risks he was exposed to and the part he played in Watergate, can he really be blamed for being bitter?  He set the wheels in motion that brought down the Most Powerful Man in the World.  Perhaps he didn’t really deserve 15 minutes of fame compared to all the journalists, lawyers, politicians and judges that propelled a “third-rate burglary” into a full-blown Constitutional crisis.  But if Frank Wills hadn’t done his job in 1972 would Mark Felt be the media darling of the week in 2005?

Wills got a little love from director Spike Lee, who held him up as how shabbily America treats its heroes in his 2004 film, She Hate Me.  The film is a muddled commentary on Enron-style corruption, impregnating lesbians (don’t ask) and sex scenes as the hero goes before a Congressional committee and proudly says, “Frank Wills and I are one.”  You don’t believe it for a second.

Wills was dead from a brain tumor long before the movie was released.  Lee could have really given e Wills his due by telling his story instead of a muddled mess about a stud impregnating lipstick lesbians. Apparently a flick about a security guard whose discovery set in motion a scandal that took down a president doesn’t make for a compelling story.

If not for a working stiff like Wills doing his job, Nixon’s scheming and criminal acts might never have been exposed.   But the simple act of doing his job didn’t make Wills’ life any happier than Tricky Dick Nixon.

“He’s the only one in Watergate who did his job perfectly,” said Bob Woodward.  “…Calling the police was one of the most important phone calls in American history, and it was so simple and so basic.”

So simple.  So basic.  So forgotten.

(This story originally appeared in The Columbus Post)