What did Ben Bradlee know, and when did he know it?

April 30, 2012

In 1990, former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee told journalist Barbara Feinman, who was helping him on his memoir A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, that he had “a little problem with Deep Throat.” Bradlee, who was then 69 years old, continued:

Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? … and meeting in some garage. One meeting in the garage? Fifty meetings in the garage? I don’t know how many meetings in the garage … There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.

This confession and other findings drawn from Ben Bradlee’s papers appear in a book excerpt that was published in New York magazine last night. The excerpt has sparked a near riot in Watergate Nation – the principals who reported the story, other journalists, history buffs, and political devotees for whom the 1972 Democratic National Committee headquarters break-in and Nixon administration cover-up remain an inexhaustible topic of fascination.

The excerpted book, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, which goes on sale May 8, is by former Bob Woodward researcher Jeff Himmelman. Himmelman first surveyed the Bradlee papers as part of a proposed book collaboration with Bradlee, but after the veteran editor decided against writing the book, he gave Himmelman sanction to write his own book based on the material.

Himmelman’s New York excerpt exploits his Bradlee-in-doubt finding for maximum dramatic potential. First, he confronts Woodward with the Bradlee quotations and recounts at length his former boss’s reaction. (Bob is rattled.) Next, he recounts a morning powwow at Bradlee’s house in which Bradlee, Woodward and Himmelman discuss the merits of publishing the two-decades-old interview about Bradlee’s Deep Throat “problem,” debating whether or not it should be included in the Himmelman book. Naturally, Woodward is opposed, saying it would give “fodder to the fuckers” who hate Bradlee, the Washington Post, the Post‘s Watergate coverage, and Woodward.

With all the grace of a toddler icing a cake with a shovel, Himmelman paints that powwow scene in Oedipal colors. Himmelman is killing the older Woodward who gave him a first, big break; Woodward is contemplating the murder of his own mentor, Bradlee, who listens to all arguments but approves the use of the interview in Himmelman’s book. I’m eager to read the book to learn if any eyes are gouged out or sacred laws of hospitality are violated.

The other bomb detonated by the Himmelman excerpt accuses Woodward and Carl Bernstein of having lied for decades about one aspect of their Watergate reporting. The two have always maintained that the Watergate grand jurors they approached during their reporting told them nothing (their efforts on this front earned them a verbal rebuke from the court, which warned the paper not to interfere with the grand jury). But a memo found by Himmelman in Bradlee’s papers states that a grand juror code-named “Z” did speak to them. “All of the quotes attributed to Z in [All the President’s Men] matched this interview,” Himmelman writes. “And there was no doubt, in the memo, how Z knew what she knew: ‘Of course, I was on the grand jury,’ she said plainly.”

When Himmelman interviewed Woodward and Bernstein about the memo, they said Carl hadn’t known the woman was a grand juror when he first visited her, and Woodward told Himmelman dismissively, “This is a footnote to a footnote.” Bernstein joked: “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all [for approaching the grand jury].”

In a written explanation Woodward and Bernstein gave to the Washington Post‘s Joel Achenbach for publication, the duo reiterate in detail their denial that Bernstein knew the woman was a grand juror when he originally went to interview her. Woodward and Bernstein continue: “To the best of our recollection, someone contacted Carl and said there was a person, a neighbor, who had important information on Watergate. Carl went and interviewed the woman as described in the Dec. 4, 1972 memo.”

According to Woodward and Bernstein, Bernstein “quotes her in the memo as volunteering, ‘of course I was on the grand jury’ because that was news to him.” They add that they did not identify her as a grand juror in the book to protect her as a source.

I asked Max Holland, author of the new book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat, for his reaction to the Himmelman excerpt. He responded via email.

“What is getting lost in the coverage so far is that Bradlee is not expressing qualms about the Post’s reporting and/or published stories from June ’72 onwards, but reservations about the fairy tale that is All the President’s Men,” he said. It’s Holland’s view that Felt leaked to Woodward not out of patriotism, as Woodward originally wrote, but out of self-interest. He was jockeying for the top job at the FBI.

Woodward and Himmelman are also dueling in the pages of Politico, where Dylan Byers is covering the story. In one Byers piece, Woodward accused Himmelman of not including in his New York excerpt a Bradlee interview from 18 months ago in which Bradlee expressed full confidence in Woodward’s Watergate reporting. ”He can write what he wants, but his own transcript undercuts his premise,” Woodward told Byers. “It’s one of those Perry Mason moments.”

Himmelman has returned fire. He told Byers that the interview Woodward describes can be found in his forthcoming book. Himmelman also cited a year-old interview in which he offered Bradlee a chance to retract his 1990 doubts, and he declined.

With all respect to Ben Bradlee, the Woodward-Himmelman spat is starting to resemble that movie in which a much-coveted dog is placed midway between two contesting owners and they rely on him to choose which owner he wants to go home with. Isn’t this historical dispute, which relies on accurate memory, a bit much to put a 91-year-old man through? Bradlee obviously admires and respects both journalists, but age has dimmed his powers of concentration (as it has mine). For that reason, I put less stock in what Bradlee has been telling Himmelman since 2007, when they first started talking, than I do the original interview with Feinman from 1990, when he had yet to retire as Post executive editor.

If Bradlee had Deep Throat doubts in 1990, if he wondered about the efficacy of the potted-plant meeting signals and the likelihood that Woodward actually had multiple meetings with Deep Throat in a parking garage, he is hardly alone. Those elements belong to All the President’s Men, a Woodward and Bernstein product over which Bradlee had no direct control, and not the Washington Post, over which Bradlee did. It means something that Bradlee doubts All the President’s Men, but what?

Until the Himmelman book appears, and he shows his complete hand, I’d be nuts to declare a winner in this dispute. But if this were a boxing match, I’d give the first round to Woodward.

Does mention of Watergate make you thirsty for more? See my February review of Max Holland’s Leak. Sluice your own views into the trough that is my email inbox, Shafer. Reuters@gmail.com or sip from the poison well that is my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Ben Bradlee (L), a former Washington Post executive editor, and Bob Woodward, a former Post reporter, pose for a photo during a tour of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, before their discussion about the Watergate burglary and stories for the Post, in Yorba Linda, California, April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

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