Aiming for Bradlee but missing

May 9, 2012

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post on May 6, 2012, and is being reprinted by permission of the Post.

Jeff Himmelman uses his new book, Yours in Truth, to take shots at Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and their 1974 book, All the President’s Men. But Himmelman’s fire does not come from the usual redoubt of Watergate revisionism. He is a former researcher for Woodward, one who worked so diligently on Maestro the reporter’s 2001 book about Alan Greenspan, that Woodward gushed about him in his author’s note.

“Jeff Himmelman,” he wrote, “was my full-time collaborator at every step of this book—reporting, writing and editing. … A truly remarkable man of unusual maturity, brainpower and charm, Jeff is an original thinker who retains a deep sense of idealism. … This book would never have been completed without him, and it is his as much as mine. I consider him a friend for life.”

After he finishes reading Yours in Truth, Woodward will probably consider a different sort of life sentence for Himmelman.

Although former Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee gets top billing in Himmelman’s book, he plays a supporting role, not the lead. The book is chockablock with Bradlee—drawing on more than 60 boxes containing his papers and other private archives, and countless hours of interviews with him and his colleagues, to tell the story of his life, which Bradlee already covered in his 1995 autobiography, A Good Life. But the genuine subject is Woodward.

Himmelman publicly signaled as much last Sunday when, before the book’s release, he published an excerpt on the Web site of New York magazine. He capitalizes on an unpublished 1990 interview in which Bradlee discussed his “little problem with Deep Throat,” the code name for Woodward’s legendary Watergate source, Mark Felt. Of the clandestine parking-garage meetings with Deep Throat that Woodward convened by moving a flower pot on his apartment balcony, Bradlee expressed doubts. “There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight,” he said.

Himmelman’s other blast criticizes Woodward and Bernstein for being less than honest about how successful they were in their efforts to interview members of a Watergate grand jury. The duo has long maintained that they did not reap any information from the grand jurors they approached. But a memo in Bradlee’s papers, written by Bernstein at the time of the Watergate investigation, indicates that they did talk to a grand juror.

Such shots land hard on Woodward and Bernstein, but will they cause lasting damage?

Himmelman attempts no deep forensic study of what he found in Bradlee’s boxes, contrary to what you’d expect of an investigative reporter challenging the legend of Woodward and Bernstein. Instead, he gives the reader long, descriptive and dialogue-rich passages in which he confronts Bradlee — and then Woodward and Bradlee—with his findings. It’s almost like reading one of the spectacular fly-on-the-wall scenes from a Woodward book, except in Yours in Truth, all the flies are on the record and the stakes aren’t as quite as global or spectacular.

Say what you will about Woodward and his reportorial techniques—and many journalists and scholars have weighed in—All the President’s Men has withstood rigorous scrutiny over the past four decades. Entire books have been dedicated to its examination. While its treatment of Watergate is not complete or perfect, the book is a powerful document of the investigation.

One of the more appealing aspects of All the President’s Men is the authors’ willingness to portray themselves in a less-than-flattering light. Bernstein is shown trampling ethics and possibly breaking the law by asking an employee at a credit card company, and another at a telephone company, to lift records. Woodward repeatedly expands his agreement with Deep Throat, phoning him after promising to stay away from the phone and quoting him anonymously in the paper after vowing never to do so. And by quoting Deep Throat at length, All the President’s Men violates the sourcing arrangement completely.

So the idea that Woodward and Bernstein would push the envelope to get a story is not revelatory: They confess to their methodology in their book.

What, then, to make of Bradlee’s doubts? Of the grand jury memo?

As I read Bradlee, what he’s doubting are the highly dramatic scenes in All the President’s Men, not the Watergate findings in the book. Arranging flower pots to set up meetings with a source inside a parking garage may sound like something out of Austin Powers, but let’s remember that Deep Throat’s first suggested signal was for Woodward to leave his apartment drapes open, which Woodward rejected because he likes sunshine. Also, the reporter devised an alternate method to set up the meetings: a telephone call that did not identify him.

The skullduggery behind the flower-pot signals and coded messages completely fit the man Deep Throat was, one experienced in counterintelligence. Deep Throat may have thought the tradecraft made him safe, or he may have used it to impress Woodward with what an important, inviolable source he was.

Woodward and Bernstein fill All the President’s Men with their heavy breathing, which is one of the things that makes it so readable. For instance, after Deep Throat warns Woodward that his inquiries are putting lives in danger, Woodward and Bernstein storm Bradlee’s home after 2 a.m. with the news. The next day, the two reporters have a meeting with The Post’s top editors, Bradlee included, where, as Woodward writes in The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat, veteran editor Richard Harwood “thought we had finally gone around the bend and that our coverage was nearing the edge of fantasy, a kind of paranoid delusion of persecution.”

Yes, the pair overdramatized their story, but it’s likely they considered their book a form of cinema verite. If your best source told you your life was in danger, you might appear overdramatic and delusional to others.

Himmelman’s grand jury revelation is difficult to parse because it’s impossible to determine what he’s found and what precise deceit Woodward and Bernstein allegedly committed. Himmelman writes that a Bernstein source code-named “Z” in All the President’s Men was “a grand juror in disguise,” which contradicts the reporters’ claim that they did not get any information from the grand jurors they contacted. Woodward and Bernstein responded to Himmelman’s charge in full on The Post’s Web site last week, conceding that Z was a grand juror but that Bernstein didn’t know that until he visited her and she volunteered it. They insist that they elided her grand juror status in their book to protect her identity.

How important was Z? Woodward loosely equates her cryptic hints with those of Deep Throat (and other sources) in a scene in All the President’s Men in which he visits Sen. Sam Ervin, chairman of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate Campaign Practices.

Himmelman writes, “If they were willing to dress Z up, might they not have hung something extra on Deep Throat, too?”

It would take the brain of a Jesuit tandemed with that of a Talmudic scholar to answer this question. Does masking the identity of Z, along with a lack of candor over what they learned from the grand jury, mean that Woodward and Bernstein would have fabulized about Deep Throat? Not in my mind. At best, Himmelman appears to have caught the reporters in either a small lie or a narrow truth about Z and the grand jury. That can’t lead to faking facts about Deep Throat unless Himmelman can point to something stronger than the doubts in Bradlee’s 1990 interview—which he doesn’t.

It’s a pity that Himmelman didn’t confront Woodward and Bernstein over the Z memo for his book and give them a chance to mount a sustained defense. Instead, he conducted an unrewarding interview with them via conference call for the New York magazine excerpt.

If the Woodward and Bernstein story is the meat in this sandwich, Bradlee’s career, before and after Watergate, is the bread. Himmelman admits that some of the bread he serves is pretty stale, conceding that “nearly all of the good stuff” from the 1990 interviews that Bradlee conducted with his researcher “went wholesale into Ben’s memoir.” The bread isn’t tasteless, though. Himmelman makes better use of material from the decades-long Grant Study of Adult Development of Harvard students, of which Bradlee was one, than Bradlee did in A Good Life.

He also brings readers up to date on Bradlee’s life since 1995, when his memoir appeared, though the audience for the period must be limited. If you’ve read A Good Life and Katharine Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, Personal History, this book will strike you as a bit of a yard sale of the Bradlee archives.

It didn’t have to be that way. The book appears to have originated as an idea of Bradlee’s wife, Sally Quinn, who wanted her husband to write another book about himself and drafted Himmelman as his assistant. He was a credible choice, having impressed Woodward and aided Ben and Sally’s son, Quinn, in writing his memoir, A Different Life: Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures.

Had the archives been dropped on a master of narrative journalism, such as Richard Ben Cramer, or a press scholar, instead of a trusted intimate of the Bradlee family, perhaps a great work could have surfaced. Instead, we’re stuck with a book that has the flavor of a Woodward production without any of the substance.


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