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Ben Bradlee Questions Deep Throat and Red Flag in Flower Pot

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.from “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee,” by Jim Himmelman

Via New York magazine - Photo: Treatments by Gluekit

BOB WOODWARD PLEADED to Himmelman, “Don’t give fodder to the fuckers.” He’s talking about people like me.

But it’s not “fodder.” It’s historical context from none other than Ben Bradlee. The story Woodward Carl Bernstein broke, along with Barry Sussman and Howard Simons, changed history by breaking the Nixon administration wide open. The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for their coverage and the story ended up as one of the most incredible political thrillers in motion picture history.

This new Watergate mystery revolves around Jim Himmelman, a former research assistant to Bob Woodward. In uncovering long buried Ben Bradlee memos to which he was given access for a new book he’s writing, excerpted from New York magazine last Sunday, it’s revealed that Ben Bradlee was a skeptic about certain details in “All the President’s Men.”

Joel Achenbach is covering this bombshell for the Post. Max Holland of the Daily Beast has been critical of the Deep Throat legacy for some time and also did a write up this week, as did Politico, as well as Slate’s Jack Shafer.

As an aside, Ben Bradlee makes an appearance in my book The Hillary Effect, as does his wife Sally Quinn and for good reason. Bradlee admitted that Ken Starr, as a judge back in the ’80s, gave the Washington Post a judgment on a libel suit that saved the paper millions of dollars and endeared Starr to him forever. This little nugget was reported by Salon.com in an article titled “The Not So Mighty Quinn,” which is no longer available online, though it’s partially cached on Google. It’s one reason it was critical to get the history written down.

During Watergate, I watched every televised portion of the hearings and hung on every word, which is why this story got my attention. I became enamored with Republican Howard Baker because of his performance during the hearings, as did many, thinking Sam Ervin, chair of the Senate Watergate Committee, a god for the way he handled his difficult job, which you’d never see from anyone today. It was back in the days where my political opinion was moored to my big brother’s tutelage.

Himmelman’s Bradlee find freaked Woodward out, but Bradlee was nonplussed. He also refused to do what Woodward asked, revealing a lot about both men.

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.”

[...] He closed by making a direct, personal appeal to Ben. “You’re this legend,” he said. “You’re the editor.” Ben’s doubts were going to mean something to people. Ben did his aw-shucks routine, but 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.”

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward gave Joel Achenbach their response to Himmelman, which is offered below in its entirety, because to do otherwise wouldn’t be right.

“If Jeff Himmelman thinks his discovery of a December 4, 1972 memo on Watergate is a significant revelation, he is wrong. The memo he has is authentic. To the best of our recollection, someone contacted Carl and said there was a person, a neighbor, who had important information on Watergate. Carl went and interviewed the woman as described in the Dec. 4, 1972 memo. As the memo plainly shows, Carl did not know she was a member of the Watergate grand jury when he arrived at her home.

“She gave Carl her phone number – and he later noted ‘this checked w. grand jury list number’ that we had. If he knew initially that he was interviewing a member of the grand jury, that would have been stated at the top of the memo, as was our style in all Watergate memos of interviews. He also quotes her in the memo as volunteering, ‘of course I was on the grand jury’ because that was news to him.

“Though the woman threw out lots of names of those she suspected of furthering the criminal conspiracy (she had some right and some wrong), she provided no specific information of suspect or illegal actions. What she said led to no story. As Carl wrote in the memo, ‘she advises us to read our articles from Sept. 15 to Oct. 30. ‘You will have many clues – there is more truth there than you must have realized.’ We wrote those stories and did realize they were true. Those stories essentially outlined the Watergate conspiracy and alleged that crimes had been committed by Haldeman, Mitchell, Stans, Kalmbach, Magruder, Porter, Chapin and Segretti.

“We referred to this woman’s interview in less than two pages (p. 211-213) in our book about covering Watergate, All the President’s Men. In that book we did not, of course, reveal that she was a member of the grand jury – in order to protect her as a source.

“When asked on April 26 2012 by Himmelman, neither of us – until after reading the original memo after 39 years – remembered she had been a member of the Watergate grand jury. The interview with her had been of little consequence because she was not telling us much more than we already believed – and published. And the lack of specifics in her account meant we had little to follow up on. Frankly we were not sure what to make of her comments at the time, and in our book Carl noted that she ‘sounded like some kind of mystic.’ But it was one of those interviews that gave us and our editors comfort that we were on the right track as later demonstrated by the subsequent investigations and history. The memo does, however, show that a member of the grand jury thought the prosecutors, who supervised and ran the grand jury, had missed the real story and the high-level conspiracy.

“You ought to publish the whole memo so your readers can see it and understand its clear context.

– Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward”

From the New York Times, part of what Woodward had to say:

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.

It’s not clear at all it’s a “manufactured controversy.” It would change the way many watch “All the President’s Men,” as well as study the subject. If Deep Throat and the flag in the flower pot were manufactured in part, it changes the dramatics, though not the outcome.

The Washington Post still brought down Richard M. Nixon.

It remains very unfortunate Gerald Ford pardoned him.

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