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Biography of Ben Bradlee Keeps Watergate Twists Coming

Douglas Caddy

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Biography of Editor Keeps Watergate Twists Coming


Published: May 1, 2012

The New York Times

It might say something about the state of politics that the biggest story in Washington on Monday happened 40 years ago. And it involves a potted plant.

In a new authorized biography of the journalism legend Ben Bradlee, “Yours in Truth,” by Jeff Himmelman, Mr. Bradlee is quoted expressing some anxiety over some of the most provocative and enduring details of “All the President’s Men,” the famous unfurling of the Watergate scandal by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

While Mr. Himmelman uses material from Mr. Bradlee’s old memos, letters, interviews and photos to write a “personal portrait” of the former Washington Post editor, the source of the Watergate conversation was an unpublished interview conducted in 1990 by Barbara Feinman, who was working with Mr. Bradlee on his memoir.

At one point, Mr. Bradlee told Ms. Feinman, “You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat.”

“Did that potted [plant] incident ever happen? ... And meeting in some garage,” Mr. Bradlee said, according to Mr. Himmelman’s book. “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.”

In an interview Monday, a day after New York magazine published an excerpt from the book, Mr. Woodward described Mr. Bradlee’s comments as outdated, long before the identity of Deep Throat, Mr. Woodward’s anonymous source, was revealed.

“I can understand in 1990, when Ben doesn’t know all the details, he’s kind of musing and saying, ‘Gee, I’m not sure this is all straight because it seems so incredible,’ ” he said. “But all of Watergate was incredible.”

He added, “This is a classic case of manufactured controversy, as best I can tell.”

Mr. Himmelman, through his publisher, declined to be interviewed.

The cinematic details of the secret meetings between Mr. Woodward and Deep Throat in a parking garage, including the use of the potted plant on Mr. Woodward’s terrace as a signal, helped turn “All the President’s Men” into a journalistic classic and an Oscar-nominated movie. Mr. Himmelman’s account has what could be called a twist out of another film, “All About Eve”: he once worked as a research assistant to Mr. Woodward, who hired him when he was 24.

Mr. Woodward kept the identity of Deep Throat a secret for more than three decades until W. Mark Felt, a longtime official with the F.B.I., unmasked himself in 2005.

Many of the details that Mr. Bradlee expressed his concern about would be known only to Mr. Woodward and to Mr. Felt, who died in 2008. The potted plant is mentioned in Mr. Felt’s book, “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington,” but his co-author, John O’Connor, told Politico that he had never confirmed that detail.

Mr. Woodward’s books are known for their ability to rattle Washington with shadowy revelations about people in power, and he was once criticized for saying William J. Casey, a former director of the C.I.A., had given him a deathbed confession that he had known about money funneled to the contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Perhaps trying to calm the latest Watergate storm, Mr. Bradlee released a statement on Monday to Politico through his wife, Sally Quinn, in support of Mr. Woodward. “No editor, no reader, can hope for more than Bob Woodward’s byline on a story that really matters,” Mr. Bradlee said in the statement. “I always trusted him, and I always will.”

Ms. Quinn added that there was “nothing specific” that Mr. Bradlee had doubts about.

A version of this article appeared in print on May 1, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Biography of Editor Keeps the Watergate Twists Coming.

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