Ben Bradlee expresses doubts about Deep Throat details in Watergate coverage

New York magazine | Politico | Washington Post
Bob Woodward’s former research assistant Jeff Himmelman has published an excerpt from a forthcoming biography of Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, “Yours in Truth,” which includes a 1990 interview during which Bradlee muses about the accuracy of details from the Watergate reporting:

“You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” Ben told Barbara [Feinman, who worked with Bradlee on his memoir].

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.

Himmelman shows Woodward the interview excerpt. Woodward says of Bradlee:

“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.”

Then, Himmelman and Woodward meet at Bradlee’s house. Himmelman arrives first and speaks with Bradlee alone. He writes:

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. 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.

Then Woodward arrived:

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 says of Bradlee:

…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.

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.”

Himmelman’s book excerpt concludes with idle chatter about how the tape of that part of the Feinman interview is missing in an amusing Watergate parallel.

In a piece by Politico’s Dylan Byers, Woodward uses his own Watergate parallel about a more recent interview Himmelman did with Bradlee in which the former editor seems to contradict himself.

“There’s a transcript of an interview that Himmelman did with Bradlee 18 months ago in which Ben undercuts the [New York magazine] piece. It’s amazing that it’s not in Jeff’s piece,” Woodward said. “It’s almost like the way Nixon’s tapings did him in, Jeff’s own interview with Bradlee does him in.”

Woodward said he has a transcript of an interview on Oct. 7, 2010, in which Bradlee told Himmelman that he is fully confident about Woodward’s reporting on Watergate.

”Jeff went back to Ben and said, ‘Hey, what about this?’” Woodward told POLITICO. “Jeff gave me a copy of this interview, but he didn’t put it in the article.”

According to Woodward’s reading of the transcript, Bradlee told Himmelman: “If you would ask me, do I think that [Woodward] embellished, I would say no.”

”He did nothing to play down the drama of all of this,” Bradlee continues, according to Woodward. “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 [Mark] Felt [who was revealed as Deep Throat in 2005], I never knew if there was anything from Bob that didn’t ring true. And I don’t think there was.”

Himmelman told The Washington Post that the 2010 interview does appear in his book and a New York magazine spokesperson said there is also a 2011 interview they cut from the piece, in which “Bradlee was even more emphatic about the fact that he still has these doubts.” In a statement to the Post, Bradlee said, “I love Bob, and I love Jeff, and I trust them both, and let’s move on.”

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