In 1995, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee wrote a long memoir titled “The Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures.” This was a rollicking work, covering Bradlee’s greatest journalistic exploits — Watergate chief among them — as well as his relationship with Katharine Graham and his intolerance for all kinds of Washington nonsense.
It also included one significant omission, about which we’re now hearing. In a New York magazine piece that hit the Web last night, Jeff Himmelman, a former assistant to Bob Woodward, reports that Bradlee had harbored “residual fear” that something about The Post’s Watergate reporting didn’t hold up:
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.
Those words, as it turns out, came from an interview that Bradlee had given to someone who was helping him put together his memoir. It was found by Himmelman, who has written a book on Bradlee titled “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee.” The book is based on Bradlee’s extensive archives, a collection that includes the “residual fear” passage. To put a twist of drama into the whole thing, Himmelman got access to Bradlee’s archives though a recommendation from Woodward.
New York magazine is running an excerpt of the book that highlights this “residual fear” of Bradlee’s. History buffs, journo-fanatics, and Georgetown all convulsed: Bradlee is sort of bailing on Woodward!
The talk value of the excerpt derives from Woodward’s reaction to news of the misgivings of his former boss. After Himmelman puts the goods in front of Woodward, this is what happens:
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.
“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.”
The balance of the excerpt stars Woodward as freakout artist, leaving phone messages, arguing about legacies. “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.’ ”
Go ahead — try to blame Woodward for his reaction. Here is a reporter whose pivotal professional triumph is being questioned by his own boss, a revelation that comes to him some 40 years after the fact. That’s powerful enough on its own. Consider, too, that the news comes via an assistant who Woodward had essentially placed in the Bradlee archive.
That’s just half of the betrayal narrative. The other half is Bradlee himself: Why hadn’t he ever confided to Woodward about his “fear.” They both live in the same neighborhood, for goodness’ sake.
There’s another reason why Woodward’s concerns resonate. What Bradlee was expressing was a hunch. He has no facts to back up his “residual fear,” at least none that he has divulged. In other words, they’re what a good editor would call unpublishable material or a smear. Good editing apparently kept that hunch out of “A Good Life.” Here’s what Bradlee did put in that memoir regarding Woodward’s reporting:
Some otherwise smart people decided Deep Throat was a composite, if he (or she) existed at all. I have always thought it should be possible to identify Deep Throat simply by entering all the information about him in “All the President’s Men” into a computer, and then entering as much as possible about all the various suspects. For instance, who was not in Washington on the days that Woodward reported putting the red-flagged flower pot on his window sill, signaling Deep Throat for a meeting.
The quality of Deep Throat’s information was such that I had accepted Woodward’s desire to identify him to me only by job, experience, access and expertise. That amazes me now, given the high stakes. I don’t see how I settled for that, and I would not settle for that now. But the information and the guidance he was giving Woodward were never wrong, never.
Those graphs hint just a touch at the “residual fear” theme. In the short period since the New York magazine excerpt hit, Bradlee has added to the pile of Woodward-integrity reminiscences, telling The Post’s Joel Achenbach, “I love Bob, and I love Jeff, and I trust them both, and let’s move on.” Another comment to Politico: “No editor, no reader, can hope for more than Bob Woodward’s byline on a story that really matters. I always trusted him, and I always will.” (Both statements came via Bradlee’s wife, Sally Quinn.) In a 2010 interview, too, Bradlee also expressed trust in Woodward’s reporting, but that interview was not included in the New York magazine piece, a point upon which Woodward has seized.
Can trust and “residual fear” live together in the same heart? Only Bradlee can answer that question, and we’re awaiting a reply.
What’s splitting this seam in the Washington establishment is a struggle between journalism and history. Journalism demands that we refrain from disparaging a man’s work if we have only a “residual fear” as the basis. (Reuters’s Jack Shafer asks, “What did Ben Bradlee know and when did he know it?”) History demands that we learn everything possible about Ben Bradlee, a pivotal figure in the history of The Washington Post. And Woodward shouldn’t take it so hard; Bradlee’s conflicting and poorly substantiated ramblings say more about him than about Woodward’s reporting.
Correction: Original said that Bradlee’s memoir was published in 1996 (that was the paperback edition). Apologies.