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The Red Flag in the Flowerpot

Four decades after Watergate, there’s something that still nags at Ben Bradlee about Deep Throat.

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Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward at the All the President's Men premiere in 1976.  

One day in early 2007, Bob Woodward poked his head into my office. He and his wife, Elsa, had been out for dinner the night before with Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn. Bradlee had written a memoir in 1995, but he had another book left on his contract, and he and Sally were looking for somebody to help them out. “I told them they should hire you,” Bob said.

My office was on the third floor of Bob’s house, down the hall from the framed apology from Nixon’s press secretary that sits at the top of the staircase. I was back working as Bob’s research assistant for a few months, after having more or less lived in his house from 1999 to 2002. Bob had been my first real boss, hiring me when I was 23. I’d been with him on September 11, as he charged toward the Capitol while the plane presumably targeting it was still in the air, and had helped him begin Bush at War, the first of his blockbuster portraits of the Bush presidency that were a late turning point in his legendary career. As a reporter, I was in awe of him. I had also gotten to know Carl Bernstein, who called often and sometimes stayed in the guest bedroom on the other end of the third floor. I still remember the charge I got out of relaying Carl’s phone messages—­Bernstein for Woodward.

Carl was important to Bob, but Ben Brad­lee was something entirely different. Bob revered him, and so I did, too. I had only met Ben once, for a few seconds in Bob’s kitchen, but I had seen All the President’s Men. When Bob said, “I told them they should hire you,” I leaped at the chance.

A few weeks later, I walked down to the Post building on 15th Street. To say that Ben had no idea who I was, or what I was doing there, isn’t quite true. We had ­talked briefly at his home, when Sally laid out a plan for the book and Ben mostly rolled his eyes; and Carol, Ben’s secretary, had also surely prepped him for my arrival that morning. But it was almost true.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

I recited the things Sally had told me to say—we can take it slow; I can do some preliminary work and see if it turns into anything; if there’s no book there, then we won’t force it—and when I was through, he looked at me blankly.

“I’ve already written one book,” he said. “I’m not in any big rush to write another one.”

I said I understood, and began to put my notebook away.

Then Ben mentioned that he had a bunch of boxes in storage someplace and had no idea what was in them. “Would you like to look at those?” he asked.

“I would love to look at those,” I said.

They came in tranches of four, seven, and nine—brown legal boxes, numbered sequentially and marked “Bradlee.” Courteous custodial workers wheeled them out of the elevator and through the chiming glass doors that mark the entrance to the seventh-floor executive suite of the Washington Post building.

The first box I opened was so filled with onionskin copies of Ben’s correspondence that its sides were bowed. I pulled one of the folders at random and came across a 1977 letter to Katharine Graham, then the Post’s publisher:

Dear Mrs. Graham:

Messrs. Eugene Meyer and Philip L. Graham must be turning over in their graves because of the way you are dragging down what used to be a wonderful newspaper.

In my humble opinion, I think the persons really responsible for the Washington Post’s decline are Benjamin C. Bradlee and Philip L. Geyelin.

Beneath it was Ben’s response:

Dear Mr. Dodderidge:

Your letter to Mrs. Graham reminded me of the story about W. C. Fields sitting with a drink in his hand in his garden one afternoon.

His secretary interrupted him repeatedly to tell him that a strange man wanted to see him and refused to say what he wanted to see him about. Finally Fields told his secretary to give the man “an equivocal answer—tell him to go fuck himself.”

This was going to be fun.

I came in every afternoon to read. I didn’t spend much time with the real Ben at first. For a while, I had no idea whether he knew what I was up to. One early “meeting” ended when I asked him how much thought he had put into his letters and he said, “The number of letters I wrote twice you could put in your ear.” Another ended when he started working on a crossword puzzle while I was in the middle of a sentence.


Adapted from Yours in Truth, by Jeff Himmelman (Random House; May). © 2012 Jeff Himmelman.


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