Barbara Feinman Todd came to Washington in 1982 with a creative-writing degree from Berkeley and no particular prospects. Starting as a lowly copy aide at The Washington Post, she wound up as a researcher, book doctor or ghostwriter for some of the most famous names in town: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Ben Bradlee and Hillary Clinton among them.
Feinman Todd, now the founding journalism director at Georgetown University, writes in her new memoir, “Pretend I’m Not Here,” that back then she was “constitutionally camera-shy, both literally and figuratively.” Being a ghost “offered me cover. I could hide behind the celebrity of prominent people.” But it all came with a price, making her feel virtually obliterated by the powerful personalities for whom she worked. “Their problems became more important than mine, their dreams more alluring.”
Of these larger-than-life figures none seemed more important than Woodward, one of the most celebrated reporters of the past half-century. He was boss, mentor, teacher, friend and source of connections that advanced Feinman Todd’s career.
And yet, she writes, he stunned her with a “breathtaking betrayal,” an act that, if true, would be a serious breach of journalistic ethics. In a telephone interview, Woodward denied her account.
Feinman Todd writes that in October 1995, after she finished ghosting Clinton’s “It Takes a Village,” Woodward invited her to his house for coffee and a visit. They went for a walk, and he pried from her a juicy Clinton story.
After “spelling out all kinds of conditions that he couldn’t use anything I told him,” Feinman Todd writes, she related a bizarre scene she had witnessed earlier that year, when a New Agey spiritual adviser led Clinton through imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi, apparently as a way to help relieve the pressures of White House life.
Feinman Todd, who had signed a contract with a confidentiality clause when she went to work for Clinton, acknowledges in the book that she shouldn’t have told Woodward about the incident. At the time, he was working on his own book, about Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. But Woodward “reassured me he would keep his promise not to tell anyone what I’d told him,” she writes. “He wouldn’t use the material. . . . Not now, not ever.” He just wanted to understand the first lady’s general state of mind.
But on a Saturday afternoon in June 1996, Woodward phoned to warn Feinman Todd that the next day’s Post would have a front-page excerpt from “The Choice: How Bill Clinton Won.” And it would contain Hillary Clinton’s strange conversations with the dead. “He admitted that even though he promised not to, he had taken what I told him in confidence and gone to the other participants to confirm the story.”
Woodward’s efforts to report the story could explain why Feinman Todd suddenly found herself on the outs with the Clinton White House, which ordered the publisher of “It Takes a Village” to withhold her final payment. And, when the book came out, Feinman Todd was given no credit, despite a requirement in her contract that she be included in the acknowledgments.
Describing what she calls Woodward’s “breathtaking betrayal,” Feinman Todd writes: “By ‘breathtaking,’ I mean literally that it took my breath away. As I type these words twenty years later, I feel my throat tighten.”
In response to the charge, Woodward said in the phone interview, “What she says is just not true.” He described an entirely different encounter, starting with how they came to talk that day. Feinman Todd called him, he said. He didn’t call her. “She said she was troubled by this thing she’d seen in the White House.”
“I’m never going to say, ‘I won’t use it,’ ” Woodward said. “Of course you check things out. I talked to other people who were there. She was totally protected.”
Feinman Todd contends in her book that it would have been obvious to everyone who the initial source was, particularly as Woodward left only her out of the scene in his book.
He also said in the phone conversation that Feinman Todd gave him two transcripts of interviews she’d done with Clinton, neither of which related to the weird episode. From one, Woodward took for his book Clinton’s comment that she believed she could change the way she felt and thought through self-discipline, a view she summed up in an aphorism from Alcoholics Anonymous: “Fake it ‘til you make it.” He said he gave the transcripts to The Post last year for its presidential campaign reporting.
Feinman Todd would not confirm or deny in a telephone interview that she gave Woodward any transcripts, which would have been a violation of her contract with Clinton: “If I gave him any material, it would have been a way to illustrate her state of mind. I’m not going to say I did.”
But she disputed his version of events: “It’s illogical that, if I were troubled by it [the Clinton meeting], I would wait five months and suddenly need to pour my heart out to him.” She added that she was more fascinated than upset by what she called Clinton’s “therapeutic exercise.”
Woodward is no stranger to controversy over sourcing. In 2014, he was pressed by David Martin on “CBS Sunday Morning” about the treatment of his most famous source of all, Watergate’s Deep Throat. Martin said: “Part of your ground rules with him were not just never to even quote him but never to acknowledge his existence. And you did that in ‘All the President’s Men.’ ” Woodward replied: “Indeed. We felt we had to lay it all out, tell the truth.”
But, Martin persisted, that put Mark Felt, the deputy FBI director who years later came forward as Deep Throat, in the position of having to lie repeatedly in public. “Isn’t that burning your source?” Woodward replied: “I had to be aggressive with him. We had to tell the complete story.”
Only Woodward and Feinman Todd know what happened in their conversation more than 20 years ago, which she said led to “havoc in my life and my professional life.” She said he made a deal never to use what she told him. He said he did not and would never make such an agreement.
“I’m very disappointed he won’t own this betrayal,” Feinman Todd said. “I owned my mistake.”
“I always think people should have their say,” Woodward said, “but this one little grain should be corrected.”
By Barbara Feinman Todd
Morrow. 303 pp. $27.99