Sometimes a Sophoclean Melodrama Is Just a Flowerpot
Posted by Michael Miner 8 May 2012
The story is called "The Red Flag in the Flowerpot." The cast of characters consists of Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post at the time of Watergate and father figure to Bob Woodward, young and relentless reporter who made his name uncovering Watergate scoops; and Jeff Himmelman, Woodward’s protege at the Post who, thanks to Woodward, was invited by Bradlee to sort through boxes of Bradlee’s old papers with an eye to writing a book about him.
The text is extracted and adapted from that book—Himmelman’s new biography of Bradlee, Yours in Truth.
The critical passage: In 1990 Bradlee was interviewed by Barbara Feinman, who was helping him write a memoir. Bradlee was talking about Watergate, and he allowed: “You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat. 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.”
Deep Throat was a character introduced by Woodward and his collaborator Carl Bernstein in their book All the President’s Men, and turned into one of cinema’s all-time Men of Mystery in the movie version of the book. Deep Throat was Woodward’s special source, and Woodward is only being human if he wants no one to think there was anything hinky about him. Himmelman shows Woodward what he’d come across Bradlee saying, and then dwells on Woodward’s reaction.
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.
Himmelman writes, “The way Bob saw it, the publication of those quotations from Ben would undermine his own legacy, Ben’s legacy, and the legacy of the Post on Watergate.” But Bradlee seems to think Woodward (his protege, as Himmelman was Woodward’s) is being a little hysterical. A meeting is arranged between Bradlee, Woodward, and Himmelman at Bradlee’s home.
When Bob arrived, he didn’t look like he’d slept a lot. We shook hands, but only in the most perfunctory way. Ben sat at the head of the dining-room table, and I sat to Ben’s left, facing Bob. There was no small talk. Bob had brought a thick manila folder with him, which he set down heavily on the table in a way that he meant for us to notice. When Ben asked what it was, Bob said, “Data.” Then he asked Ben what he thought of the whole situation.
“I’ve known this young man for some years now,” Ben said, meaning me, “and I trust his skills and his intent.” Then he looked down at the transcript and said, “Nothing in here really bothers me, but I know there’s something in here that bothers you. What’s in here that bothers you?”
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 sets up his tale adroitly. He identifies himself as professionally beholden to Woodward ("As a reporter, I was in awe of him") and Woodward as much more than that to Bradlee. (“I mean, you know, it’s ultimately like another father,” says Woodward of Bradlee. "Like with your father, you feel that you never close the deal.”) And having nailed down the always helpful Oedipal dimension, he promptly sets up Woodward to take a fall. Himmelman begins his account with a long discussion of another of All the President’s Men’s mysterious figures, an important source of Bernstein’s identified only as Z. (Z, a political thriller set in Greece, and Deep Throat were both famous films released while Richard Nixon was president, though they didn’t have much else in common. Well, each in its own way was breathless.) Himmelman lays out compelling reasons to believe that Z was actually a member of the grand jury investigating Watergate. If that’s so, it was a violation of the law that could have landed Bernstein and the juror in jail, and the two reporters have always insisted nothing of the sort ever happened.
The reader’s takeaway from this prologue: Woodward and Bernstein were a couple of young reporters chasing a huge, challenging story, and they weren’t above the sort of shenanigans that reporters have been pulling since the Founding Fathers signed off on the First Amendment. They certainly weren’t above putting their names to a romanticized account of their sleuthing in which flower posts were flagged to signal rendezvous and the rendezvous were held in dead of night in deserted garages.
Whoever Deep Throat turned out to be, it would be a letdown, and a few years ago we learned that he was Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official who possibly met with Woodward to serve the cause of liberty, but possibly had other reasons. I’ve written before in the Bleader about Leak, a recently published book by investigative reporter Max Holland that argues Felt used Woodward as much, if not more, than Woodward used Felt, and what Felt wanted out of the Washington Post’s reporting was acting FBI director Pat Gray so thoroughly discredited that President Nixon would ask Felt to take over the bureau.
Read entire article here.