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Sep 7

Written by: Diana West
Friday, September 07, 2018 5:31 AM 

In 2012, Politico, of all outlets, listed six big disputed reports from Bob Woodward.

(1) The potted plant to signal "Deep Throat"

(2) CIA Director William Casey's deathbed scene

(3) Tenet's WMD "slam dunk" quote

(4) Justice Brennan voting against conscience to curry favor

(5) Reagan recovery scene

(6) John Belushi portrayal in "Wired"

Catch up on them here.

What made these examples of disputed Woodward reporting newsworthy was the stunning 2012 revelation in New York Magazine, as Politico put it, that "legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once expressed `fear in my soul' that Bob Woodward had embellished elements of his reporting in the Watergate scandal."

Leaving readers mouths agape, Politico moves on to its own list.

This does not begin to do the Bradlee story justice. In "The Red Flag in the Flowerpot: Four decades after Watergate, there’s something that still nags at Ben Bradlee about Deep Throat,"  Jeff Himmelman, author of the Bradlee biography, Yours in Truth (ironic), not only reports on finding this comment in Bradlee's papers  -- which Bradlee did not publish in his own memoirs -- but, more amazingly, the very strange effect it had on Woodward at the prospect of publication. 

There were other notable items in the Himmelman's piece -- for example, this heretofore unheralded Bradlee comment about the "blip" that Watergate might have been, had the Post, of course, not driven Nixon from office:

I mean the crime itself was really not a great deal. Had it not been for the Nixon resignation it would be really a blip in history. The Iran-Contra hearing was a much more significant violation of the democratic ethic than anything in Watergate.

Also, Himmelman is able to nail Woodward and Bernstein on a source ("Z") they lied about. For forty years, the dynamic duo claimed not to have gleaned any information from grand jurors, a crime that could easily have sent them to jail. However, Himmelman discovered they had indeed interviewed a source ("Z") who was a grand juror. “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all,” Bernstein said to Himmelman.

Onto the fear in Bradlee's soul. 

Himmelman writes:

In April of 2010, Carol, Ben’s secretary, called to tell me that somebody had located a couple of stray Bradlee boxes at the Post’s storage facility. In one of the boxes were two interviews that Ben had done with Barbara Feinman, who was helping him with his memoir, in 1990.

...

Later in the interview, Ben talked about Bob’s famous secret source, whom he claimed to have met in an underground garage in rendezvous arranged via signals involving flowerpots and newspapers. “You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” Ben told Barbara.

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.

I read it over a few times to make sure. Did Ben really have doubts about the Deep Throat story, as it had been passed down from newsroom to book to film to history? And if he did, what did that mean? I wrote Bob [Woodward] to set up an interview.

After 45 minutes of prepared questions about Watergate in Bob’s living room, I slid the relevant pages of the transcript of Ben’s interview with Barbara across the table.

Bob read silently for a while. “Where he’s saying, ‘There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight,’ what’s …” He trailed off. He knew the news as soon as he saw it.

“That’s what I was curious about,” I said.

Seven minutes after he’d started reading, he put the pages down and looked up at me. He was visibly shaken. “I’m not sure what …” he said, all vigor drained from his voice.Then, quietly: “What’s the question?”

“There is no question,” I said uncertainly.

This really is kind of amazing.

“You know, I can understand,” Bob said after another minute or two. “Look, he’s got to be—you’ve got to understand his strength as a skeptic. And that he would say, ‘There’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.’ ” He laughed. “I mean, that’s Ben. That’s—it was right, it worked, but ‘there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.’ ”

I could tell from the repetition of that one phrase that Bob wasn’t quite convincing himself, even as he later told me to “embrace that thought.”

Toward the end of our interview, Bob pulled the transcripts toward him and said, “Let me keep this. I’ll put it in my Brad­lee file.” I told him that was no problem.

But when I got home later and listened to the interview, my heart sank. Bob had repeated that one phrase fifteen times in twenty minutes. I had a bad feeling.

Two days later, on a Saturday morning, an e-mail from Bob arrived. It was pleasant but direct: What was the date of ­Barbara’s interview with Ben, and where was the tape of that interview?

On Sunday night, at 10:45, another e-mail came in, this one from Sally [Quinn, Bradlee's wife]. Bob had come over to their house, and he was agitated. He wanted to be there the next morning when I came to look for the tape.

At 8:30 on Monday morning I called over to N Street. Sally picked up and told me what had happened. When she and Ben had gotten home from dinner the night before, there had been an urgent message from Bob on their machine. She called him back, and he ended up coming over and staying for nearly two hours. As soon as he arrived, it was clear that he was deeply worried.

The way Bob saw it, the publication of those quotations from Ben would undermine his own legacy, Ben’s legacy, and the legacy of the Post on Watergate. 

I asked Sally what to expect when I got there, and she said I should expect for Bob to make a loyalty argument—to him, to Ben, to the paper.

Then she asked if I wanted her to be there for the meeting, and because I didn’t know Ben’s state of mind I told her that I’d be more comfortable if she were in the house somewhere. The only situation I wasn’t sure I could handle, I told her, was if both Bob and Ben were to turn on me together.

One of the maids let me in a little after 9:30 a.m. “Woodward, is that you?” Ben called out when he heard the front door close.

“No, it’s just me,” I said. Ben was finishing his breakfast, and I saw that he had a marked-up copy of the documents I had given to Bob in his right hand.

“So I guess I’ve really stirred the hornet’s nest here with Bob,” I said.

“It sure seems that way,” he said. Then he asked what I thought had upset Bob the most.

This was the moment of truth. I knew that how I answered would shape everything that followed. I told him I was starting to believe that this had struck such a chord with Bob because maybe there was some portion of the Deep Throat story that really wasn’t quite straight. 

Ya think?

Maybe it was some of the flowerpot and garage stuff. Who knew?

There was a lot of Hollywood in that story, but we’d all gone along with some of the more questionable details because everything else about the story turned out to be true.

Ben smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s all I was saying,” he said.

My worry fell away in a great rush.

Amazing. It's not often we get to see the light at the end of the sausage-factory.

People who know Ben well talk about these moments of telescopic intimacy, where he makes you feel that you’re standing at the center of the world and he’s right there with you. I had never felt it for myself, until now.

When Bob arrived, he didn’t look like he’d slept a lot. We shook hands, but only in the most perfunctory way. Ben sat at the head of the dining-room table, and I sat to Ben’s left, facing Bob. There was no small talk. Bob had brought a thick manila folder with him, which he set down heavily on the table in a way that he meant for us to notice. When Ben asked what it was, Bob said, “Data.” Then he asked Ben what he thought of the whole situation.

“I’ve known this young man for some years now,” Ben said, meaning me, “and I trust his skills and his intent.” Then he looked down at the transcript and said, “Nothing in here really bothers me, but I know there’s something in here that bothers you. What’s in here that bothers you?”

Bob went into his pitch, which he proceeded to repeat over the course of the meeting.

He would read the “residual fear” line out loud, and then say he couldn’t figure out how Ben could still have had doubts about his reporting so many years after Nixon resigned. This was the unresolvable crux of the problem, and one they circled for the duration of the meeting: How could Ben have doubted the flowerpots and the garage meetings, when the rest of the reporting had turned out to be true? Bob thought this was inconsistent and hurtful. Ben didn’t. Bob tried everything he could to get Ben to disavow what he had said, or at least tell me I couldn’t use it. Ben wouldn’t do either of those things. “Bob, you’ve made your point,” Ben said after Bob had made his pitch four or five times. “Quit while you’re ahead.”

Bob turned to me. I had worked for him; he had given an impromptu toast at my wedding.

You know me and the world we live in, he said. People who didn’t like him and didn’t like the Post—the “fuckers out there,” as Ben had called them—were going to seize on these comments.

Yes, let's!

“Don’t give fodder to the fuckers,” Bob said, and once he lit on this phrase he repeated it a couple of times.

Always the wordsmith.

The quotes from the interview with Barbara were nothing more than outtakes from Ben’s book, he said. Ben hadn’t used them, and so I shouldn’t use them, either.

That argument didn’t make sense, and I said so.

Thank goodness! The most interesting aspect of this whole contretemps is the surprisingly refreshing attitude of Himmelman and Bradlee favoring publication. Maybe secretly they both relished the opportunity to torment Le Grand Woodward. Or was it something else?

Bob told me it was his “strong recommendation” that I not use the quotes, then that it was his “emphatic recommendation.” Then, when that got no truck: “Don’t use the quotes, Jeff.”

He closed by making a direct, personal appeal to Ben. “You’re this legend,” he said. “You’re the editor.”

No one could write this dialogue -- not even Woodward.

Ben’s doubts were going to mean something to people. Ben did his aw-shucks routine, but he had clearly made the calculation that Nixon’s resignation, and the reporting that had contributed to it, weren’t contingent on whether Deep Throat had watched Bob’s balcony for flowerpot updates. That was on Bob and Carl, not on Ben or on the Post.

Here it is. As far as Bradlee was concerned, as far as his agenda went -- Nixon's resignation -- the veracity of Woodward's reporting didn't matter, especially so long as they all of them stuck to the (cover) story that this was just  a matter of flower pots. But the stab of "fear in my soul" forty years over flower pots ... does that ring true? Does a Bob Woodward, forty years later, enter a manic state over same? 

At the end of the meeting, when Bob asked for his final opinion, Ben said, “I’m okay with it, and I think I’m going to come out of it fine. So you two work it out.”

When we got up from the table, Bob hugged Ben and then walked out.

Two days after the meeting, I went to Ben’s office to talk it over. “Why has Woodward got his bowels in an uproar?” Ben growled.

Still!

“I think it’s very strange, I have to be honest with you,” I said. “But you want to know something strange? This was one of those interviews you did with Barbara, of which there are maybe twelve or thirteen. I just went down and looked in the tapes. Every single one of them is there but this one.”

“What does that mean?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think Woodward’s got it?”

“Maybe,” I said. He laughed, and then I laughed. The Watergate parallels were a little much, though we were surely imagining things. “His reaction to this thing was off the charts.”

“Off the charts!” Ben said. “It suggests that he’s really worried. That it might be true.”

Bob and Carl have always said that they knew they were on to something when the campaign staffers they interviewed reacted with such fear when asked about the break-in. Bob’s reaction to Ben’s doubt, the palpable fear, had aroused my suspicions. If they were willing to dress Z up, might they not have hung something extra on Deep Throat too? It was, as Ben would say, an idea that could be thought.

“It’s inconceivable to me,” Ben said, “that in his preparation for all of this, to strengthen his case, he didn’t neaten things up a little—we all do that! 

#FakeNews is real.

"He thinks it is a critical and fatal attack on his integrity, and I don’t think it is.” Then, a moment later: “There’s nothing in it that attacks the verity of his research.”

“Zero.”

“It’s just a little … ”

“A few of the bells and whistles,” I said. “Were all the bells and whistles those exact bells and whistles?”

“Where he had 90 percent, he was going for 100 percent,” Ben said. “And it’s that last lunge that drubs you.”

That's their story and they're sticking to it.

We talked a while longer, and then I got up to leave. As I made my way to the door, Ben dispatched me with a backslap and an admonition: “Keep the faith.” 

Keep the faith?

This is priceless. Well worth another read. I hope President Trump gets a chance to peruse. 

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Copyright 2012 by Diana West