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The Red Flag in the Flowerpot


Fact-Checking Woodstein
In All The President’s Men and ever since, Woodward and Bernstein have maintained that while they tried to get members of the Watergate grand jury to talk about the proceedings, none did. But in Bradlee’s files, Jeff Himmelman discovered a memo that suggests that one source—a woman they called “Z,” whom Woodward later said had been as important to the story as Deep Throat—was a grand juror, a fact they disguised in the book. Above, we annotate the relevant passage.

He didn’t have much interest in the stuff I was digging up, either. Whenever I found a letter that I thought was particularly incisive or relevant or funny I would bring it to him in his office. He would hold it up, scan it, and then put it aside with the very clear intention of never looking at it again.

But the reading was reward enough. Ben began one letter to Jesse Jackson, “You are one mean dude,” then proceeded to ream Jackson for trying to influence the Post’s coverage: “If you are writing your letter of July 26 to me to show to some other people, well and good. So be it. But if you are writing that letter to help your cause, the cause of the good people in this world, you are close to being counterproductive. Next time you’re in town, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what newspapers are for. One of the things they are not for is simply this: They are not to serve anyone’s special interest.”

In 1976, when the Post published a somewhat slanted account of George ­McGovern’s decision to rent his house to the Syrian ambassador, Ben wrote, “Dear George: I think our story about your house was bullshit, and I’m sorry it ever ran.” On a letter from George Allen, the coach of the Washington Redskins, Ben simply wrote, “File under ‘Assholes.’ ” Carol likes to tell the story about the time her son met with Ben at the Post for advice. After the meeting was over, Ben clapped him on the back and said, for all of the seventh floor to hear, “Keep your pecker up.”

But it wasn’t just his saltiness that got me. The boxes were a kind of archive of Washington history after the war. In one of them, I found an invitation to a birthday party—a generic card, with furry animals aligned along the side. I looked more closely, and I noticed that the party was for John Kennedy Jr., at the White House, to be held November 26, 1963—an invitation to a party that never happened. I had to stop working and just sit with that one for a while.

One day, I found a faded copy of a play called How, Please?, which Ben had written with a colleague at Newsweek in the late fifties. I walked into his office and plunked it down on his desk with a grin.

He looked at the title page, flipped through it, and then looked back over at me.

“Don’t kill me with this,” he said, half-imploring, half-kidding. It was the only time that he tried to stay my hand.

Dear Ben:

On your 80th I want to say some of the things that seem never to get said. For reasons of maleness, and maybe time, I’ve rushed by too much that is important, the really, truly important.

The letter was typewritten on Bob’s personal stationery. He began with his first interview with Ben, in September of 1971: “Everything after the Navy was easy, we agreed,” he wrote. “After the Navy there could be running room.”

So that’s what you gave me first—running room. It was a magnificent gift. I felt it every day, and it came directly from you. There was this huge sense that we were your boys, or girls, or people—the entire newsroom—turned loose. Running room was a matter of pride and obligation. We didn’t understand fully what it was, but we recognized daylight and went for it because that is where you were pointing. Daylight: news, the unexpected and surprising, and the daily folly and occasional generosity of mankind, that endless buffet.

Bob doesn’t normally write like that. When I worked for him, he would sometimes encourage me to “swing from the high vines,” but he was always hesitant to do the same. Most of the time, it was hard to tell how Bob really felt about anything.

The way you and Sally have extended your family to ours in recent years is a cornerstone of our life. I’m feeling older. If the running room is a little less, and the rear end doesn’t move as fast, the old fires of deep appreciation, deeper admiration and the deepest love still burn for you.

“At what point did you become friends?” I asked Bob.

“Well, you know,” he began, “I think you’ve probably got other people …” He trailed off. “Ben and I are close, and we have this history. But he’s not going to call me up and say, ‘Hey, come on down and have a beer.’ I think he does that with [Jim] Lehrer and [Jim] Wooten and Shelby [Coffey] some,” he said, referring to three of Ben’s friends. Then, a bit uncertainly, “Doesn’t he?”

“I don’t really know,” I said. I had spent nearly five months in Ben’s archives, but I still didn’t know the man all that well.

Bob paused, thought for a moment. “I mean, you know, it’s ultimately like another father,” he said. “Like with your father, you feel that you never close the deal.”


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