New book says Bradlee doubted some Woodward details in ‘All the President’s Men’

A new book claims that legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee once harbored doubts about whether star reporter Bob Woodward was completely “straight” when recounting in his best-selling Watergate book some of the dramatic, cinematic elements of the scandal.

Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee,” which will be released May 8 by Random House, was written by Jeff Himmelman, an intimate associate of Bradlee’s and Woodward’s. Himmelman worked for Woodward from 1998 to 2002 and more recently became involved with Brad­lee, who offered what Himmelman reports as full access to extensive files that Bradlee has saved over the decades.

An excerpt of the book appeared Sunday on the Web site of New York magazine and drew an immediate rebuke from Woodward, who called Himmelman’s account “dishonest.”

The New York magazine excerpt, published almost 40 years after the Watergate break-in, does not call into question the veracity of Woodward’s reporting, either in his Watergate coverage in The Washington Post or in “All the President’s Men,” the famous book he wrote with Carl Bernstein. But Himmelman’s account suggests that even a relationship as close as that of Woodward and Bradlee was not immune to moments of doubt.

Himmelman reports that he found a seven-page memo from 1972 that shows that one of the sources for Woodward and Bernstein during their Watergate coverage was a member of the Watergate grand jury, which Himmelman says contradicts statements by the two reporters for the past four decades. In a written statement provided to The Post, Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the authenticity of the memo, but said it was not a “significant revelation” because the grand juror did not provide specific information and that Bernstein’s interview with her did not result in a story. They said they did not identify her in their book in order to protect her as a source.


Ben Bradlee reminisces about the Watergate experience during an interview with David Von Drehle in 2005. (Bill O'Leary/TWP)

The excerpt then focuses on a single, unpublished 1990 interview of Bradlee by journalist Barbara Feinman, who was helping Brad­lee prepare his memoir, “A Good Life.”

“You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” Bradlee told Feinman, according to Himmelman’s account. “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.”

“All the President’s Men” said that Woodward would move a potted plant with a flag stuck in it to the rear of his balcony when he wanted to signal to his source that he urgently needed to meet. He and “Deep Throat” met in a garage, later revealed to be located in Rosslyn.

Although Woodward’s harshest critics spent years questioning whether he concocted the character of Deep Throat, Woodward’s reporting has been repeatedly confirmed over the past four decades, notably with the 2005 disclosure that his secret source was W. Mark Felt, the No. 2 official at the FBI during the scandal.

Much of the excerpt in New York magazine is about Himmelman’s relationships with the mentor figures of Woodward and Brad­lee. He describes a tense meeting at which he told the two that he intended to write about Bradlee’s 1990 comments. Woodward, he reports, urged him not to.

“I was worried because it was the first I had learned that Ben had any doubts, because he never brought those to me,” Woodward said Sunday night. He said of the excerpt, “It is a total dishonest distortion of our discussions, Jeff’s and mine.”

On Sunday night, Woodward provided The Post with a transcript of a 2010 interview of Brad­lee by Himmelman. Himmelman asked Bradlee whether he had doubts about Woodward’s reporting.

“Well, I mean, if you would ask me, do I think that he embellished, I would say no,” Bradlee said, according to the transcript. He added that Woodward did nothing “to play down the drama of all this.”

Himmelman said Sunday night that the 2010 exchange is included in his book, although it’s not in the magazine excerpt. Asked whether he thought Bradlee had any serious doubts about Woodward’s honesty, he said no. He referred further questions to Barbara Fillon, his publicist at Random House. “We stand by the reporting, we stand by the book,” she said.

Bradlee’s wife, Sally Quinn, relayed a statement Sunday night from her husband: “I love Bob, and I love Jeff, and I trust them both, and let’s move on.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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