Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Sometimes a Sophoclean melodrama is just a flowerpot

Posted By on 05.08.12 at 07:42 AM

Ben Bradlee
  • Ben Bradlee
The excerpt from a new biography of Ben Bradlee that ran the other day in New York magazine is a long story that turns on a small remark about Watergate. As far as the history of Watergate is concerned, what Bradlee apparently said in 1990 is revisionism of utter insignificance. Besides, history is constantly being tinkered with. But among journalists, Watergate is mostly myth, and in myth the quests are forever noble, the deeds forever daring, and virtue forever triumphant. If you’re remembered as a slayer of dragons, you won’t want it to come out that you used rat poison.

The story is called "The Red Flag in the Flowerpot." The cast of characters consists of Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post at the time of Watergate and father figure to Bob Woodward, young and relentless reporter who made his name uncovering Watergate scoops; and Jeff Himmelman, Woodward’s protege at the Post who, thanks to Woodward, was invited by Bradlee to sort through boxes of Bradlee’s old papers with an eye to writing a book about him.

The text is extracted and adapted from that book—Himmelman’s new biography of Bradlee, Yours in Truth.

The critical passage: In 1990 Bradlee was interviewed by Barbara Feinman, who was helping him write a memoir. Bradlee was talking about Watergate, and he allowed: “You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat. 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.”

Deep Throat was a character introduced by Woodward and his collaborator Carl Bernstein in their book All the President’s Men, and turned into one of cinema’s all-time Men of Mystery in the movie version of the book. Deep Throat was Woodward’s special source, and Woodward is only being human if he wants no one to think there was anything hinky about him. Himmelman shows Woodward what he’d come across Bradlee saying, and then dwells on Woodward’s reaction.

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.

Himmelman writes, “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.” But Bradlee seems to think Woodward (his protege, as Himmelman was Woodward’s) is being a little hysterical. A meeting is arranged between Bradlee, Woodward, and Himmelman at Bradlee’s home.

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.”

Himmelman sets up his tale adroitly. He identifies himself as professionally beholden to Woodward ("As a reporter, I was in awe of him") and Woodward as much more than that to Bradlee. (“I mean, you know, it’s ultimately like another father,” says Woodward of Bradlee. "Like with your father, you feel that you never close the deal.”) And having nailed down the always helpful Oedipal dimension, he promptly sets up Woodward to take a fall. Himmelman begins his account with a long discussion of another of All the President’s Men’s mysterious figures, an important source of Bernstein’s identified only as Z. (Z, a political thriller set in Greece, and Deep Throat were both famous films released while Richard Nixon was president, though they didn’t have much else in common. Well, each in its own way was breathless.) Himmelman lays out compelling reasons to believe that Z was actually a member of the grand jury investigating Watergate. If that’s so, it was a violation of the law that could have landed Bernstein and the juror in jail, and the two reporters have always insisted nothing of the sort ever happened.

The reader’s takeaway from this prologue: Woodward and Bernstein were a couple of young reporters chasing a huge, challenging story, and they weren’t above the sort of shenanigans that reporters have been pulling since the Founding Fathers signed off on the First Amendment. They certainly weren’t above putting their names to a romanticized account of their sleuthing in which flower posts were flagged to signal rendezvous and the rendezvous were held in dead of night in deserted garages.

Whoever Deep Throat turned out to be, it would be a letdown, and a few years ago we learned that he was Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official who possibly met with Woodward to serve the cause of liberty, but possibly had other reasons. I’ve written before in the Bleader about Leak, a recently published book by investigative reporter Max Holland that argues Felt used Woodward as much, if not more, than Woodward used Felt, and what Felt wanted out of the Washington Post’s reporting was acting FBI director Pat Gray so thoroughly discredited that President Nixon would ask Felt to take over the bureau.

Holland argues that if Woodward and Bernstein had been truly protective of Felt’s deep cover, they’d have written their book without mentioning him at all. They couldn’t bring themselves to do that. And so, as I wrote in an earlier Bleader post, “They both flattered Felt and exposed him; he became Deep Throat, scrupulous whistle-blower swaddled in mystique, played in the movie by Hal Holbrook as an enigmatic beacon of truth. Holland tells me he’s sure that Woodward at some point stopped believing Felt was any such person, even though he kept up to the pose to the end—in his eulogy at Felt’s funeral and in the book he then wrote about him, The Secret Man. To Holland, this book is most interesting for everything Woodward found it necessary not to know—in particular the details behind Felt’s sudden resignation from the FBI—in order to draw his 'flattering, if fuzzy and unsatisfying portrait of Deep Throat . . . . In Holland's version of the Felt-Woodward relationship, there was less honor on either side than the book, or the movie, or certainly the legend would have it."

And now here’s Woodward’s father figure allowing that the Deep Throat business always struck him as a little fishy. And Woodward reels. But bounces back on Politico, where he accuses Himmelman of ignoring a 2010 interview in which Bradlee supposedly told Himmelman, “If you would ask me, do I think that [Woodward] embellished, I would say no. . . . You know I’m sure they had a signal, but if it was roses or something else I don’t know. But they had the means of communicating with each other. But because I never knew Felt, I never knew if there was anything from Bob that didn’t ring true. And I don’t think there was.”

Does this language contradict what Bradlee told Barbara Feinman in 1990? Does it graph an old man’s wavering perspective as time passes and matters that took place in 1972 recede to the margins of memory? Or does it underscore the likely opinion of a disinterested onlooker, which is that not even the flowers could have cared half as much about that flowerpot as Woodward still does today?

Does the agonizing over Deep Throat among journalists of a certain age suggest members of a sect debating narrow points of faith as invading pagans puts every last one of them to the sword? Maybe a little. But if you care at all you care a lot, and to gratify your unquenchable interest I offer what Max Holland, who’s been reading attentively, now has to say about what Bob Woodward has to say about what Jeff Himmelman has to say about what Ben Bradlee had to say about Deep Throat.

“There is reason for Woodward to be thin-skinned,” Holland writes on the Daily Beast, “because notwithstanding 15 mostly bestselling books to his credit, All the President’s Men remains the foundation for his (and Bernstein’s) renown. And it does have problems. It’s not because ‘some portion of the Deep Throat story really isn’t quite straight,’ as Himmelman opined, when trying to understand why Woodward had become so unhinged by Bradlee’s near-aside. Rather, it’s because at the heart of All the President’s Men is a fairy tale, albeit a compelling one.”

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