Did Ben Bradlee have lingering doubts about Watergate?

A new biography of Ben Bradlee by Jeff Himmelman quotes Bradlee saying that – decades later – he still had "a little problem with Deep Throat."

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    Bob Woodward (r., with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein in the Washington Post newsroom in the 1970s) called the excerpt of Jeff Himmelman's biography of Ben Bradlee which appeared on New York magazine's website "a total dishonest distortion of our discussions, Jeff’s and mine.”
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Bob Woodward and his “All the President’s Men,” which outlined the revelation of the Watergate scandal, had its share of critics, many of whom doubted the existence of Woodward’s secret source “Deep Throat.”

According to a new book, they weren’t alone: even Ben Bradlee, legendary Washington Post executive editor, questioned whether Bob Woodward was completely “straight” in recounting elements of the landmark scandal in his best-selling book “All the President’s Men."

For “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee,” Jeff Himmelman (an associate of both Bradlee and Woodward) was given full access to Bradlee’s files and embarked on a fruitful exploration of the legendary editor’s misgivings.

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Himmelman’s account does not call into question the veracity of Woodward’s reporting, but it does suggest “that even a relationship as close as that of Woodward and Bradlee was not immune to moments of doubt,” writes the Washington Post.

New York Magazine website ran an excerpt of the book Sunday that’s been drawing ire from readers, pundits, and even Woodward himself.

“You know I have a little problem with Deep Throat,” Bradlee told journalist Barbara Feinman in an unpublished 1990 interview, according to Himmelman’s account. “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.”

(In “All the President’s Men” Woodward and co-author Carl Bernstein wrote they would move a potted plant marked by a flag to the rear of Woodward’s balcony to signal to his source, “Deep Throat,” that he needed to meet immediately. He and “Deep Throat” met in a garage, later revealed to be located in Northern Virginia.)

Woodward said of the excerpt, “It is a total dishonest distortion of our discussions, Jeff’s and mine.”

After reading the excerpt, Woodward went further, providing The Post with a transcript of a 2010 interview of Bradlee by Himmelman. In the interview Himmelman asked Bradlee whether he doubted any parts of Woodward’s reporting.

“Well, I mean, if you would ask me, do I think that he embellished, I would say no,” Bradlee replied, according to the transcript. (Himmelman told the Post this exchange is also included in his book.)

And although critics have questioned Woodward’s reporting and the very existence of Deep Throat, decades of investigation after the scandal and its coverage have confirmed Woodward’s reporting, notes the Post, most notably with the 2005 disclosure that “Deep Throat” was W. Mark Felt, the No. 2 official at the FBI at the time.

Bradlee’s take on the book centering on his own doubts about his star reporter?

“I love Bob, and I love Jeff, and I trust them both, and let’s move on,” he said Sunday night in a comment relayed through his wife journalist Sally Quinn.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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